Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)


Class: Aves
Order: Ciconiiformes
Family:    Cathartidae
Size:    Length: 25 to 32 inches (63 to 81 cm) Wingspan: 6 feet (1.8 m)
Weight: Average 4 pounds (1.8 kg)
Diet: Carrion, vegetation, fish
Distribution: North America and South America
Young:  1 to 3
Animal Predators:  Eagles prey on nestlings
IUCN Status: No special status
Terms: Young: Nestling Group: Colony
Lifespan: Up to 16 years



·     The Cherokee Nation gave them the name peace eagle, because unlike eagles, turkey vultures do not kill.   

·     The scientific name “Cathartes” is derived from the Greek word “kathartes,” which means “purifier” or “cleanser.” 



Turkey vultures were named for their red, featherless head, which resembles that of a turkey. They are large birds with dark brown feathers and a long, rounded tail. Their long, hooked bill is yellow at the tip and they have red legs, ending in black claws. They were once considered a bird of prey and belonged to the order Falconiformes, along with hawks, owls and eagles, but due to DNA analysis and other biological studies, they were recently moved into the Ciconiiformes order, which includes storks and spoonbills.



Turkey vultures are found across the entire United States and may be found as far north as southern Canada. In the southern states, some populations may stay year round, but those in the north migrate as far south as Central and South America for the duration of the winter. Turkey vultures prefer open country and can often be found near roadsides, where carrion is plentiful. 


Feeding Habits

Although turkey vultures eat meat, up to 50 percent of their diet consists of vegetation such as grass, leaves, pumpkins and seeds. Because they have an exceptionally acute sense of smell, they are often the first to arrive at a carcass, usually within one day of the death. If the carcass is four or more days old, they will not touch it. Turkey vultures feed on both large and small animals, including moles, squirrels, gophers, coyotes, badgers, rabbits, rats, fish and reptiles. When a flock of turkey vultures find a large carcass such as a dead cow, they call other birds such as California condors to come and join in on the feast. Turkey vultures are beneficial because a rotting carcass can spread disease, and these birds conveniently go in and clean them up. As well, their digestive system destroys any bacteria that may have been in the food, and therefore their droppings and regurgitated pellets (containing inedible body parts such as hair, bone, etc.) do not contain diseases. 



Turkey vultures do not build a nest, but lay their eggs on the ground in a sheltered area including within rocks, in a log, a cave or in a cliff hollow. The parents take turns incubating the eggs, which hatch approximately a month later. Both parents feed the nestlings by regurgitating food into their mouths. The young vultures take their first flight when they reach nine to 10 weeks of age. 


Turkey vultures are social birds that live in flocks of approximately 75 birds and roost together at night in a tall tree. They are extremely graceful in flight, and can soar on thermals for lengthy periods of time, rarely needing to flap their wings, which they hold in an extended “V” shape. They are active during the day and sleep at night. Turkey vultures spend two to three hours each day preening, or cleaning themselves. When water is available, they take a bath, immersing themselves for as long as half an hour, then walking out of the water and extending their wings out to dry in the sun. They are known as playful birds, playing tag and follow-the-leader while in flight. 


In the United States, vultures are protected fully by state and federal laws. It is illegal to kill, harm or possess a vulture. Turkey vultures are not a conservation concern at this time. 










Raptors: North American Birds of Prey, Noel and Helen Snyder, Raincoast Books, 1997

North American Birds of Prey, William Mansell, Gage Publishing, 1980