Turkey vulture

Cathartes aura

Turkey vultures range over most of North and South America, and the Caribbean. They inhabit grasslands, swamps, mountains and rainforests. They are carnivores.

Did you know?

  • Turkey vultures are named for wild turkeys because they both have bald, red heads.
  • It is believed turkey vultures evolved independently of vultures in Europe, Asia and Africa and are related to storks and cormorants.
  • Cattle ranchers once believed turkey vultures carried disease. The opposite is true: as carrion-eaters, they remove sources of infection.
  • Turkey vultures help identify natural gas leaks. Natural gas pipelines often cross unpopulated lands. When a leak occurs, turkey vultures are attracted by the smell. Their circling alerting humans of the problem.

Turkey vulture behavior and facts

  • Turkey vultures are scavengers. Though they prefer well-rotted carrion, they prey on mice and other small mammals, grasshoppers, and fish; they may also eat fruit or vegetables such as pumpkins.
  • A keen sense of smell differentiates them from other vultures that have to rely primarily on eyesight to spot prey. This adaptation is useful as vultures soar above forests, where the tree canopy conceals carrion.
  • Turkey vultures scavenge independently, but when one spirals down toward carrion, others notice and descend to the food as well.
  • In flight, they hold their wings at a slightly obtuse angle and soar gracefully on thermals. On land, they shuffle or hop.
  • Turkey vultures emit a subdued grunt, and a hiss or snarl, when other vultures compete for a carcass they have claimed.
  • Their bare head is an adaptation that minimizes infections. Since they immerse their heads in rotting, bacteria-laden carrion, a feathered head would carry illness-causing bacteria.
  • A turkey vulture defecates onto its feet to cool them and kill bacteria.
  • In unorganized flocks of hundreds of birds, vultures migrate thousands of miles north each spring from tropical areas, and each fall return south to nesting sites. During migration little or no food is consumed.

From birth to death

  • Turkey vultures scratch out a nest on cliffs, in caves or hollow stumps, or on the ground in dense shrubbery.
  • Clutch: 1 to 3 eggs laid in 3- to 4-day intervals
  • Incubation: 35 to 42 days, by both sexes
  • Fledge: 8 to 10 weeks
  • Lifespan: 20 to 25 years; 25 to 30 years in captivity

Vital statistics

  • Length: males 30 to 32 inches
  • Weight: males 2 to 3 pounds
  • Wingspan: males 68 to 72 inches
  • Females are slightly smaller

Status

Turkey vultures are protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They are not listed as endangered or threatened.

Turkey vultures, the Oregon Zoo and you

Clyde, a turkey vulture, is part of the zoo's Wild Life Live! show. Despite the name, Clyde is female. She was hatched in 1985 in the wild, but a well-intentioned man thought the nest had been abandoned and took Clyde home to raise her. (It is against the law to raise native birds without a permit.)

When released, it was clear Clyde had become too habituated to humans: she begged for food, chased dogs, followed children and poked holes in screen doors. So Clyde was brought to the Audubon Society of Portland and then to the zoo.