62 - 81cm
1.6 - 1.8m
0.8 - 2.4kg
15 - 20 yrs
The turkey vulture, sometimes called the turkey buzzard or carrion crow, is the most widespread of the New World vultures. It is named after the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), due to its similarly bald head and colouration, although they are otherwise unrelated. “Cathartes” means “cleanser” (as in cathartic), referring to its preference for eating carrion.
Its comparison to the wild turkey is largely accurate. Its plumage is mainly a brownish-black, (although the flight feathers may be silver) with bare and skinny pink-skinned legs. The head is relatively small, red, and equally featherless ending with a pale, ivory colored beak. The nostrils are perforated, meaning thy can be seen through from the side.
What Does it Look Like?
What Does it Sound Like?
Like most other vultures, the turkey vulture is effectively incapable of vocalising because it lacks a syrinx (the bird equivalent to our “voice box”), meaning it can only produce more guttural sounds such as hisses and grunts. These noises are normally used by young birds calling for food, or by adults scrapping over a carcass.
They are not known to hunt in the traditional sense – they instead seek out carrion, preferably from the very recently dead. They possess a rare ability to smell out carcasses, meaning they are often followed to the site by larger king vultures. In fact, they sometimes rely on them to make the first cut, as the beak of the turkey vulture is quite weak.
What Does it Eat?
Where Does it Nest?
They typically don’t build a nest and instead lay directly on the ground, although they do select a sheltered spot such as a rocky crevice or tree hollow for added protection. Two eggs are typically laid and will be incubated by both parents for around 5 weeks. Once hatched, the chicks will then be raised for a further 10 weeks.
It can be found throughout vast swathes of the Americas, from Southern Canada to Cape Horn. In fact, its only notable absence from the continent (besides northern Canada) is in parts of Argentina. It prefers open country, shrubland, deserts and foothills, although it also tolerates lightly forested areas. Northernmost birds generally migrate further south.
Where Does it Live?
What is its Status?
Due to its incredibly large range, it is considered Least Concern by the IUCN. In fact, best estimates place the global population at 4 million birds. Despite the lack of specific threats, the turkey vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which restricts their use, capture and trade. Misguided farmers are still known to destroy it illegally, however.
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