17 Interesting Facts About The Turkey Vulture

There isn’t too much to admire about the lowly Turkey Vulture. It’s probably the most common raptor that you will see flying at the hawk watch, but, oh my gosh, it has a face that not even a mother could love! Still they are graceful fliers as they ride the thermals upward. The Turkey Vultures will usually be your first indication that thermals are starting to form. And her’s a tip the hawk counters taught me. When you see a kettle of vultures circling in a thermal, take a close look because you may also spot an eagle flying with them. This happens because the eagles will use the vultures to find the thermals and then take advantage of what the vultures have found.

Some of the things that I have learned about the Turkey Vulture, I wish that I did not know. Ugh! What follows is some of the information that I have learned, but – Warning! – Read it at your own risk!

  • The Turkey Vulture is also known in some North American regions as the turkey buzzard (or just buzzard), and in some areas of the Caribbean as the John crow or carrion crow
  • The Turkey Vulture inhabits a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, scrublands, pastures, and deserts.
  • The Turkey Vulture forages by smell, an ability that is uncommon in the avian world. It often will fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals.  The olfactory lobe of its brain, responsible for processing smells, is particularly large compared to that of other animals. This heightened ability to detect odors allows it to search for carrion below the forest canopy. King Vultures, Black Vultures and condors, which lack the ability to smell carrion, follow the Turkey Vulture to carcasses

Turkey Vulture

  • The Turkey Vulture arrives first at the carcass, or with Greater Yellow-headed Vultures or Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, which also share the ability to smell carrion. It displaces the Yellow-headed Vultures from carcasses due to its larger size, but is displaced in turn by the King Vulture and both types of condor, which make the first cut into the skin of the dead animal. This allows the smaller, weaker-billed, Turkey Vulture access to food, because it cannot tear the tough hides of larger animals on its own. This is an example of mutual dependence between species
  • Courtship rituals of the Turkey Vulture involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In the air, one bird closely follows another while flapping and diving.
  • The Turkey Vulture lacks a syrinx—the vocal organ of birds—its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses
  • A Turkey Vulture‘s nostrils are not divided by a septum, but rather are perforate; from the side one can see through the beak.
  • The Turkey Vulture undergoes a molt in late winter to early spring. It is a gradual molt, which lasts until early autumn.
  • The Turkey Vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups, breaking away to forage independently during the day. Several hundred vultures may roost communally in groups which sometimes even include Black Vultures.
  • Though Turkey Vultures nests in caves, they do not enter them except during the breeding season.

Turkey Vulture at Wildcat Ridge Hawk Watch in New Jersey

  • The Turkey Vulture lowers its night-time body temperature by about 6 degrees Celsius to 34 °C (93 °F), becoming slightly hypothermic.
  • The Turkey Vulture is often seen standing in a spread-winged stance. The stance is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria. It’s practiced more often following damp or rainy nights.
  • Like storks, the Turkey Vulture often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known as urohidrosis. It cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi and feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs.
  • The Turkey Vulture’s primary form of defense is regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. It will also sting the predator’s eyes if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes
  • When adult Turkey Vultures are threatened while nesting, they may flee, or they may regurgitate on the intruder or feign death. If the chicks are threatened in the nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating
  • In some cases, the Turkey Vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator
  • The Turkey Vulture’s life expectancy in the wild ranges upward of 16 years. A captive life span of over 30 years being possible

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