Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura

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Photo of a turkey vulture in flight
Noppadol Paothong
Family

Cathartidae (New World vultures) in the order Accipitriformes

Description

The turkey vulture is a large-bodied bird with blackish plumage and a small, red, naked head (juveniles have black heads). The beak is short, hooked and whitish. The legs and feet are pink but often stained white. From below, the wings appear black with the trailing half of the wing gray or silvery. When soaring, turkey vultures hold their wings in a V position (not flattened horizontally). Turkey vultures frequently tilt from side to side as they soar.

Similar species: Black vultures, common in the southeastern United States, are expanding their range northward, and Missouri sightings of them are increasing. Note their black head, shorter tail, and (seen from below) a white patch near the ends of the wings. When they soar, their wings are held nearly horizontal, and they frequently alternate between a series of three to four flaps and soaring.

Size

Length: 27 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan: 70 inches.

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Photo of turkey vulture facial features.
Turkey Vulture Face Features
Turkey vultures use their keen sense of smell to find stinky dead animals to eat. Yum!

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Photo of a turkey vulture perched on a cedar snag on a high bluff overlooking Ha Ha Tonka Spring
Turkey Vulture at Ha Ha Tonka State Park
The turkey vulture is one of the few animal species strongly associated with cliff natural communities.

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turkey vulture with research tag
turkey vulture with research tag
Turkey vultures bearing research tags like this one are part of a study on migration routes and breeding grounds used by these unique raptors.

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Video of turkey vultures in the wild.
Habitat and conservation

Turkey vultures are especially fond of bluffs, where they can catch rising warm air currents upon which to soar. Adults have very few natural predators; adverse factors include collisions with automobiles as they feed on road-killed carrion.

Foods

Turkey vultures are highly specialized carrion feeders, locating their food by smell as well as by sight. They are often attracted to road-killed carcasses.

image of Turkey Vulture Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Common migrant and summer resident statewide, although less common in the southeastern part of the state. They are becoming locally common in the southern half of Missouri during the winter months.

Status

Common migrant; common summer resident (rare breeder, or absent in summer, in unforested parts of Mississippi Lowlands).

Life cycle

Turkey vultures roost in large colonies but forage individually. Roosts are generally in large, bare trees. Breeding is in spring and involves courtship displays of several individuals. Turkey vultures lay eggs in caves, cliffs, crevices, hollow trees or brushy thickets. There are usually 2 chicks per clutch and little in the way of a nest. The helpless young hatch in 30–40 days and are fed by the parents for 10–11 weeks. Families stay together until fall.

Human connections

These remarkable birds impress us with their soaring flight and help clean up the natural areas we enjoy. Contrary to the beliefs of some, turkey vultures do not kill live animals and present no danger to livestock.

Ecosystem connections

As scavengers, turkey vultures perform a valuable service by cleaning up the woods, grasslands and even roadsides. Black vultures often rely on turkey vultures’ keen sense of smell to locate the carrion upon which they both feed.