Turkey Vultures

Turkey vultures are often found in groups. Photo by Kenneth Boone

A North American bird thats hard to love

Turkey vultures are hard to love.

They dress almost exclusively in black except for their featherless heads, which are bright red with white and black splotches.

They only eat carrion, very often pungent, bloated road-kill.

Their only form of defense is vomiting partially digested rotten meat, which doesn’t smell anything like rose petals and, reportedly, stings if you get hit in the eye.

They routinely defecate on their feet, staining them white, in an effort to cool themselves.

And their poop has been known to kill a tree.

But other than that, turkey vultures are a very helpful species that play an important role in reducing diseases that could harm humans while cleaning up our roadways and countryside.

Turkey vultures are one of the largest birds you’ll see in the Lake Martin area. They fall between red-tailed hawks and bald eagles in size, weighing roughly 4 1/2 pounds with a wingspan that stretches almost 6 feet. Males and females look alike.

The turkey vulture range extends from Canada to South America, though in both extremes they are migratory visitors. Some turkey vultures migrate thousands of miles each year, while others, like many in Alabama, are year-round residents. They can be found almost everywhere in the Americas, from mountains to deserts, more likely to be seen in open areas than in heavy forests.

You will likely observe them in three different modes, circling high above the ground, tucking into a roadside meal during the heat of the day or gathered in groups roosting on trees, buildings or microwave towers at night and early morning. You may also see them sunning in the mornings, their wings spread while standing in the sunshine to dry them and cook bacteria off their feathers before a day of scavenging.

From below, this bird has a large black silhouette with V-shaped wings (remember “V” for vulture). Its soaring flight is often unsteady, sometimes described as teetering or wobbly. It scouts for fast food with its eyes and with its nose, which is much more developed than most birds’ noses.

On the ground, turkey vultures are the only large black bird with a bald red head and a hooked beak that eats carrion. Actually, their feathers are dark brownish-black – usually appearing black in most light conditions – and in flight the underside of their flight feathers can appear silver-gray. Turkey vultures are ungainly on the ground; they hop to get around. The only other carrion-eating vulture in our area, the black vulture, has a gray head.

The turkey vulture has a tremendous sense of smell. It prefers freshly dead animals and has the ability to smell them from well above the ground, though scientists think the higher they fly the more these birds rely on their eyesight to find food, while in lower altitude flight they primarily use their noses. In any case, if you see circling turkey vultures, there’s a very good chance that there is a carcass of some type on the ground.

Turkey vultures lack the distinctive voice of many other North American birds. They communicate with a series of grunts and, when under attack, a nasty hissing sound.

Scientists believe the reason that vultures have bald heads is that it allows the birds to poke their heads inside a carcass without dirtying or damaging their feathers. Vultures begin with the softest part of a carcass first, while allowing time for the tougher parts to decay and soften up before chowing down. While they will eat from almost any carcass, they seem to prefer mammals and do actually show some discretion. According to Cornell University’s All About Birds website, turkey vultures will eat a skunk carcass but will leave the skunk’s scent glands in the bone and fur pile.

You might think that type of behavior would not be conducive to a long, healthy life; however, turkey vultures have been know to live longer than 16 years in the wild. These birds have robust and enviable immune systems and are able to consume disease-killed carcasses with active colonies of botulism, cholera, salmonella or anthrax, which cleans the environment and helps prevent diseases from spreading to other animals.

Turkey vultures are known by a number of common names, such as buzzard, turkey buzzard, carrion crow and John Crow. To scientists, these birds are Cathartes aura. Cathartes is derived from the Greek word for “to purify or cleanse” while “aura” is derived from the Latin word for gold. In other words, this bird is a “golden purifier,” a valuable cleaner.

When it comes time to mate – from March to June in the Lake Martin area – turkey vultures exhibit hopping courtship dances on the ground and “follow flight” aerobatics in the air with the trailing bird mimicking the leader’s dives and turns. These vultures don’t spend much time in nest making. Females lay one to three cream-colored eggs that are spotted brown, gray, blue, green or light purple and are on the large end. Common nesting sites are caves, hollow logs or trees or abandoned heron or hawk nests in secluded areas. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, which hatch in a month to 40 days. Both parents feed the chicks by regurgitating meat for them, for about three to four months, when they fledge.

Turkey vulture populations were once harmed by the pesticide DDT, but like eagles and other large North American birds, vulture numbers have rebounded today. They are still harmed by man, usually through consuming lead shot in carcasses and gut piles left by hunters. It is illegal to kill turkey vultures in the U.S., a crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

While turkey vultures may not be the most pleasant of Lake Martin’s wild creatures, they perform a vital role in cleaning up our wild ecosystem and making it a safer place for all of the lake’s residents.

Some information for this article came from Cornell University’s All About Birds website, the Audubon Society and National Geographic.