Classification and Range
Turkey vultures and other New World vultures belong to the family Cathartidae, in the order Ciconiiformes. New World vultures make up the subfamily Cathartinae and are mostly large, long-winged, brownish-black birds with bare heads. Other members of this subfamily include the Andean condor, king vulture, black vulture and the highly endangered California condor. Turkey vultures range from southern Canada to South America.
Turkey vultures are commonly seen near farms, open areas and woodlands soaring on thermals. They nest in rocky, forested locations.
Adult turkey vultures are 24-28 inches (60-70 cm) in length with a wingspan of 5-6 feet (150-180 cm). They usually weigh between 3.5-5 pounds (1.6-2.7 kg). The turkey vulture's plumage is dark brown with a blue, green or purple iridescence. The underside of the wing is two-tone with dark brown or black on the leading edge of the wing, with silver-gray flight feathers. Adults have a small, bare, red head; juveniles have blackish heads. The legs are also pale red and bare. Their feet are weak with blunt toenails and a small hind toe.
Can attain an age of 20 years in captivity.
In the wild: Unlike true birds of prey, vultures rarely catch live prey. Vultures seek out carrion (dead animals) and will eat most anything they come upon. Soaring high above ground, they use their acute vision to locate food. The turkey vulture has a more developed sense of smell than most birds, and can easily locate covered carcasses not visible from the air.
At the zoo: Mice, rats, quail, trout and stockbones.
Prior to pairing up, turkey vultures often take part in a group "dance." Gathering in large numbers on open ground, they hop, with wings trailing, toward one another. Turkey vultures do not make nests. Instead, clutches of about two eggs are laid in a variety of locations, including bare ground in the brush, the floor of caves, on rock shelves, or in rotted-out logs. Both parents incubate the eggs, which takes 38-41 days. Both parents feed the hungry chicks with regurgitated food. Young stay in the nest for about six weeks.
Turkey vultures spend much of the day soaring in the sky in search of carrion. Although primarily scavengers, turkey vultures may rarely attack insects or small, sick animals. At night they often gather in large roosts. Turkey vultures living in the northern reaches of their range tend to be migratory, and usually assemble in flocks of up to several hundred individuals for the fall and spring migration to and from wintering grounds in the southern states, Mexico, south to South America.
Clumsy on the Ground - Agile in the Air
These large birds move awkwardly on the ground, walking or hopping clumsily with a sideways hitch. When preparing to take flight, a turkey vulture leans forward, takes a few steps, hops and then pushes off with its legs while flapping its wings.
Once airborne, turkey vultures become birds of grace and agility. Using their large, broad wings to ride warm air thermals, they soar upward and rarely have to flap their wings.
Turkey vultures are easy to identify in flight. Their wings are held in a V-shape, or dihedral, over their back. Because they are very light for their size, they tend to teeter back and forth in the wind.
Vultures are social animals. Several dozen turkey vultures may flock to a large carcass within minutes after its death. Although turkey vultures are usually silent, this all changes when they gather to eat. Silence is replaced with shoving, hissing, grunting, growling and squabbling, and fighting between vultures breaks out at times. Injury, however, rarely occurs during the upheaval of the feeding frenzy.
The bare head of a turkey vulture is an adaptation for its scavenging life style, and helps keep the head clean when the vulture sticks its head inside the carcass of a large animal.
Location at the Zoo
Turkey vultures can be seen at the zoo's Raptor Center. Other birds that can be viewed at the Raptor Center include the bald eagle, gyrfalcon, Harris's hawk as well as great horned, spectacled and barred owls. Additionally, owls can be seen in the zoo's Temperate Forest bioclimatic zone; a great gray or spotted owl adjacent to Bug World and a barn owl at the Family Farm. Woodland Park Zoo's Eagle Release Program has rehabilitated and released back into the wild more than 80 eagles, plus several other raptor species.
Turkey vultures are widespread, and are not considered endangered. Turkey vulture numbers declined in the 1950s and 1960s, most likely due to pesticide contamination. The current increase in turkey vulture populations may be a result, in part, to the more controlled and safe use of poisonous pesticides.
All vultures play a valuable role in nature as scavengers. Vultures quickly remove carcasses from the landscape before they rot and turn foul-smelling. The genus name Cathartes comes from the Greek word Kathartes which means "purifier." Vultures can eat animals that have died from diseases such as anthrax or botulism and not get sick themselves. In this way they help to prevent the spread of disease.
How You Can Help!
Efforts to save threatened and endangered birds require cooperation and support at international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Recycle forest products. Eliminate or reduce pesticide use. Support breeding programs for endangered bird species at zoos and other animal care organizations. Let your elected representatives know your views about the conservation of migratory birds and their wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org to find ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and their habitats by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Newton, Ian Dr. 1990. Birds of Prey. Facts On File, Inc., New York, NY. 240 p.
Weidensaul, Scott. 1996. Raptors: The Birds of Prey. Lyons and Burford, Publishers, New York, NY. 382 p.
Burnie, David. 1988. Bird (Eyewitness Books). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 64 p.
Zoobooks. 1986. Birds of Prey. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 16 p.