Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura

This week, it’s time to give a big shout out to the often unloved and underappreciated Turkey Vulture. With its gnarly bald head and spectral 6-foot wingspan, the Turkey Vulture may seem rather unsavory at first glance. But look past their warty eyes and straight through their gaping nostrils to find an endearing nature. Never backing down when things get messy and sticking with you to the very end, the Turkey Vulture is everything you could hope for in a local carrion feeder.

Turkey Vulture portraitTurkey Vultures and other carrion feeders provide the ecosystem service of carrion (dead animal) disposal, and it’s a job not everyone in the animal kingdom would be qualified for. Turkey Vultures have evolved one of the most robustly acidic stomachs in the world, so that any number of germs and viruses, from salmonella to anthrax, can be processed and dissolved in their stomachs. We can think of the Turkey Vultures as a cleaning crew, sanitizing our environment by removing dangerous pathogens. Without Turkey Vultures fulfilling this vital niche, humans and other animals would be far more susceptible to zoonotic viruses.

Despite their occupation, Turkey Vultures, and most carrion eaters, are some of the cleanest birds. Since these birds rely on their sense of smell to locate their meals, they are meticulous about hygiene. Bald heads and feet keep Turkey Vultures from getting meat stuck in their feathers as they feed. Additionally, a constant regimen of pruning feathers leaves the Turkey Vulture squeaky clean.

Besides feeding on carcasses, a well-known behavior of vultures is their circular soaring flight patterns. Like their hygiene routine, this behavior is related to the Turkey Vulture’s reliance on sense of smell. Air moves from the surface of earth and through the atmosphere in convection currents. Turkey Vultures glide in a circle around columns of rising hot air, using this half of the convection current to keep them aloft. Furthermore, as the warm air rises from the earth’s surface, it carries smells from the ground. In other words, Turkey Vultures are so perfectly evolved that all the need to do to find a meal is glide on a convection current, waiting for an enticing smell to come to them.

Pair of VulturesOklahoma is home to two species of vulture; the second is called the Black Vulture, pictured above side-by-side to the right of the Turkey Vulture. While their head color and feather color are distinct, these two species can be difficult to distinguish from a far, especially since they spend a lot of time in close proximity. Black vultures and other carrion-eaters have learned to follow Turkey Vultures because of their superior sense of smell. Turkey vulture nostrils are noticeably larger than black vultures. In fact, their nostrils are hollow so that from a side view, you can see straight through a Turkey Vulture’s nose. This extra surface area makes the Turkey Vulture’s sense of smell far more attuned than other birds of its niche. In comparison, the nostrils of the Black Vulture are no more than slits as it relies more on vision to locate meals.

In Oklahoma, spring is Turkey Vulture mating season! If you took the face of a very small dinosaur, a pile of cotton balls, and two chicken legs, you would have something resembling a vulture chick. Turkey Vultures are monogamous and share in all parenting responsibilities equally like egg-sitting and feeding the young, making these carrion eaters somewhat of a feminist icon.

Pair of Vulture Chicks

Mating Season for Turkey Vultures in OK
Egg laying April 28- June 20
Chicks can be seen May 9- July 4

You can use the table above as a guide for what to expect if you are hoping to see some Turkey Vulture chicks. Turkey Vultures do not build nests. Instead, they prefer to find a semi-enclosed space to lay their eggs directly on the ground. Barn lofts, tree hollows, and small caves are all excellent options for Turkey Vultures to raise their chicks. So be on the look out this spring for and summer for your local Turkey Vulture family!

More Resources!

Turkey Vulture Live Cam

A pair of Turkey Vulture parents have chosen a barn loft in Marshall, Missouri to raise their offspring. A network of cameras is streaming live footage of the expectant couple right now! One egg was laid on April 18, 2021, and a second was laid between the 20th and 21st, just a week ago! According to the field guide entry from Audubon, it takes from 34-41 days of incubation by both partners for the eggs to hatch. So, we can expect to start seeing very fluffy turkey vulture chicks from May 22nd to May 29th! Be sure to bookmark the link so you can check back in!

Check out this link to watch turkey vulture parents raise two chicks from eggs to fledglings in a tree hollow. This ten-minute video was compiled by Tami Gingrich, a naturalist associated with Geauga Park District in Ohio.

Ologies Podcast LogoIf Turkey Vultures have piqued your interest in carrion-feeders of North America, check out this link to an episode from the podcast ‘Ologies’ with Alie Ward. This is a podcast where host Alie Ward interviews experts in a variety of fields and “ologies”. In this episode, she takes a dive into Condorology with Condor and Vulture specialist Dr. Jonathan C. Hall. They discuss what it’s like to work in the field with Turkey Vultures as well as their much larger relatives on the West Coast, the California Condor.