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  • William L Culbertson

The Rainy Day Naturalist: Turkey Vultures

Vultures are the most righteous of birds: they do not attack even the smallest living creature.


If ever a bird has been vilified, reviled, and maligned, the turkey vulture is certainly that bird. Their ugly, red-skinned heads have no feathers, and they are scavengers that eat the rotting flesh of dead animals. Those base facts turn most people’s attention to prettier birds with more pleasant life styles. And yet, let’s not rush to judgment. After all, the turkey vulture’s scientific name, Cathartes aura, translates to “cleansing breeze.” There’s more to the story.

Turkey vultures do not kill their food like eagles or hawks. Instead they, uh, clean up dead bodies of animals that would otherwise decay into festering hotbeds of disease-causing microorganisms. Vultures do carrion rather than carry-out, and that makes them good stewards of the environment.

Large birds with wingspans of about six feet, vultures are brownish-black overall. The undersides of their wings are marked with silver-gray patches. Relatively light in weight, around three pounds, for the size of their wings they soar effortlessly on rising columns of air scouting for their next meal. Their wings have long feather “fingers” at the ends, and they hold their wings up at a greater angle (dihedral) than most birds making them them very agile fliers. That nimbleness lets them track the rotting-meat scent of their next meal from over a mile away. Although vultures have good vision, it’s the fragrance that leads them to their lunch.

The bald red-colored heads? Vultures sometimes plunge their heads inside a carcass to feed, and skin is easier to clean than feathers. Their beaks are tough and strong enough to tear apart, well, whatever they happen to find.

Social animals, turkey vultures roost in large groups. In the early morning hours, they perch with their wings spread, the horaltic pose, to warm themselves before their day’s work. Groups of vultures wheel inside columns of rising air on the lookout for something to eat. Prevailing west winds across Clear Lake are forced upward by the hill that lines the southern part of the east side of Clear Lake. During the warmer months, you can see the local colony of turkey vultures gliding effortlessly in the updraft along the shoreline.

Rather than build their own nest, a vulture looks for a remote, out-of-the-way location to raise their young. Very much family oriented, birds feed their young for up to eight months after the youngsters can fly on their own. Even afterwards, they tend to stay together in extended family groups. Vultures are not aggressive nor do they shy away from nearby humans. In fact, rescued birds will bond with their human caregivers. Of course this tolerance has its limits. If threatened, a vulture will vomit the contents of its stomach on the offender—contents that started nasty and have only gotten worse.

While turkey vultures have some repulsive—at least to us—habits, they perform an important cleanup function. Perhaps we should thank them like we would a guest at a party who, although having a few revolting habits, always helps tidy up.

I eat like a vulture. Unfortunately the resemblance doesn't end there.

-Groucho Marx

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