Turkey Vulture Fun Facts
Turkey Vultures are named for their red, featherless head which looks like the head of a wild turkey.
The featherless head helps prevent pieces of carrion and unwanted bacteria from sticking to the vulture. After mealtime, the turkey vulture perches in the heat of the sun and whatever has managed to cling to the few bits of fuzz on their head will be baked off once and for all.
Turkey Vultures are sometimes referred to as "buzzards". This term is incorrect, as buzzards are actually a family of hawks found across Europe and Africa. The term buzzard was most likely used by English settlers, who came from a country that has no vultures, to describe most soaring hawklike birds.
Although they appear hawklike in shape when they fly, vultures are more closely related to storks.
Their large wingspan (67-70 inches) and body size often cause people to mistake Turkey Vultures for hawks or even eagles. Soaring vultures can be distinguished by the dihedral, or "V" shape they hold their wings in as they glide. Turkey Vultures also appear to rock from side to side as they soar. Feathers are widely spaced at the wingtips, giving them a "fingers spread" appearance.
Turkey Vultures are masters of soaring. Once above the canopy, they rarely flap their wings. Turkey Vultures have been recorded gliding for up to six hours without ever flapping their wings!
Kettles of soaring Turkey Vultures are a common sight in our area during spring and fall migration. Depending on the wind direction, migrating vultures may follow the lakeshore or else migrate inland along the ridges. These groups may number from a few birds to several hundred individuals.
Turkey Vultures feed almost entirely on carrion. They may also eat plant material, including pumpkins, coconuts, juniper berries, and grapes.
Because they lack strong feet for carrying food, Turkey Vultures consume most carrion where it is found.
Turkey Vultures locate food both by sight and by smell, which allows it to detect dead animals hidden under the forest canopy.
Compared to most other birds, the part of the brain responsible for processing smells is quite large in Turkey Vultures.
Black Vultures lack this sense of smell and instead often follow Turkey Vultures to carcasses.
Like its stork relatives, the Turkey Vulture often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces to cool itself down. In addition, this deposit contains strong acids from the vulture's digestive system, which kill any bacteria that may remain on the bird's legs from stepping in its meal.
Their stomach juices are so strong they can kill diseases like cholera, rabies, anthrax, and botulism. They will defecate around a carcass and that will also kill the disease and grass, allowing time for the disease to go away before another animal will graze near where a sick animal died.
They help prevent the spread of disease to both humans and animals. In areas where vultures have died off, diseases such as rabies and anthrax are rampant.
A vulture’s blood is packed with antibodies, which will attack any bacteria that happen to survive in its stomach.
A vulture’s stomach acids are so strong, they can even dissolve metal! The pH of a human’s gastric juices is between 1 and 2. The pH of a vulture’s gastric juices is between 0 and 1. (Vinegar has a pH of 2.4 and battery acid is 0.8.)
Turkey Vultures have few natural predators. If threatened, these vultures will regurgitate an extremely foul-smelling mix of semi-digested meat, which deters most would-be predators. Turkey Vultures do not "projectile vomit" as some people believe. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to lift off and flee from a potential predator. In this case, the regurgitated material has not yet been digested and many predators will give up pursuit of the vulture in favor of this free edible offering.
Turkey Vultures do not vocalize much beyond a few hisses and grunts.
Turkey Vultures are monogomous and pairs often remain together until one member dies.
Pairs return to the same nest site every year. Turkey Vultures do not build nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in dark recesses in ledges, caves, crevices, and hollow logs, as well as on the ground. Turkey Vultures also nest in the abandoned stick nests of birds, in mammal burrows, and in abandoned buildings.
Turkey Vultures typically lay 2 eggs. Both adults incubate, brood, and help feed the young.
Young Turkey Vultures fledge 70-80 days after hatching.
For one to three weeks after their first flight, fledglings perch and roost at the nest site and continue to be fed by their parents. Thereafter, fledglings slowly explore the area around the nest site, and eventually disperse from the area completely.
Turkey Vultures are summer residents across southern Canada and most of the US. They can be found year-round in southeastern US, Mexico, Central America, and most of South America.
Hinckley, Ohio celebrates the return of Turkey Vultures as a sign of spring every year on March 15th. An official "Buzzard Spotter" clocks the first arriving Turkey Vultures to the Buzzard Roost on the Hinckley Reservation.