If you’ve gone looking for raptors on a clear day, your heart has probably leaped at the sight of a large, soaring bird in the distance– perhaps an eagle or osprey. But if it’s soaring with its wings raised in a V and making wobbly circles, it’s likely a Turkey Vulture. These birds ride thermals in the sky and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite of their sharply hooked bill at a time, and never mussing a feather on their bald heads.
The Story of Lucy
Lucy (because of her red head, like Lucille Ball) was admitted to the center on 12/26/1989. She had her entire wing amputated because of a fracture (broken bone). This is now illegal. We are not allowed to amputate higher than mid-humerus because it is difficult for the bird to right herself if she falls onto her back. And if she were to fall into her water bin, she could drown. Obviously, Lucy has been with us for over 25 years and is doing just fine.
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Cool Facts: The oldest recorded Turkey Vulture was at least 16 years, 10 months old when it was found in Ohio, the same state where it had been banded.
Habitat: Look for Turkey Vultures as they cruise open areas including mixed farmland, forest, and rangeland. They are particularly noticeable along roadsides and at landfills. At night, they roost in trees, on rocks, and other high secluded spots.
Food: Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Mostly they eat mammals but are not above snacking on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to wait for their meal to soften in order to pierce the skin. They are deft foragers, targeting the softest bits first and are even known to leave aside the scent glands of dead skunks. Thankfully for them, vultures appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.
Nesting: Turkey Vultures don’t build full nests. They may scrape out a spot in the soil or leaf litter, pull aside obstacles, or arrange scraps of vegetation or rotting wood. Once found, many of these nest sites may be used repeatedly for a decade or more.
Nest Placement: Turkey Vultures nest in rock crevices, caves, ledges, thickets, mammal burrows and hollow logs, fallen trees, abandoned hawk or heron nests, and abandoned buildings. These nest sites are typically much cooler (by 13°F or more) than surroundings, and isolated from human traffic or disturbance. While they often feed near humans, Turkey Vultures prefer to nest far away from civilization.
Behavior: The Turkey Vulture’s distinctive slow, teetering flight style probably helps the bird soar at low altitudes, where it is best able to use its nose to find carrion. At other times they may soar high on thermals and form mixed flocks or kettles. On the ground they move with ungainly hops and are less agile than Black Vultures. Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool off, or dry off. Outside of the breeding season, Turkey Vultures form roosts of dozens to a hundred individuals. When Turkey Vultures court, pairs perform a “follow flight” display where one bird leads the other through twisting, turning, and flapping flights for a minute or so, repeated over periods as long as 3 hours. Migrating flocks can number in the thousands. At carcasses, several Turkey Vultures may gather but typically only one feeds at a time, chasing the others off and making them wait their turn. Despite their size, Turkey Vultures are often driven off by smaller Black Vultures, Crested Caracaras, Zone-tailed Hawks, and other species.
Conservation: Turkey Vultures increased in number across North America from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 18 million with 28% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 9% in Mexico, and 1% breeding in Canada. The species rates a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Turkey Vulture is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These birds were threatened by side-effects of the pesticide DDT, but today they are among the most common large carnivorous birds in North America. However, because they live on rotting meat, like California Condors, they can fall victim to poisons or lead in dead animals. The main concern is lead shot that ends up in carcasses or gut piles left by hunters. The animals eat the shot and eventually suffer lead poisoning. Other threats include trapping and killing due to erroneous fears that they spread disease. Far from it, vultures actually reduce the spread of disease.