Most people consider them nasty birds. Some call them disgusting buzzards. I love them and think they are one of the most remarkable birds in our world.
They’re large docile birds that clean up roadkill and other carrion littering our roadsides, forests and fields. They slow the spread of disease and generally make the environment smell better.
Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) have the potential to be fierce predators like other raptors, but they aren’t. They use their formidable claws to tear apart dead animals instead.
Most birds have keen eyesight and these large black raptors are no exception. One thing they possess that most other birds don’t is a fabulous sense of smell. They can detect the odor of rotting flesh in minute concentrations, and they can do it while soaring at high altitudes.
I love to watch them glide. They can fly while barely flapping their wings at all. They merely adjust the angle to make the most of the available convection currents.
Sure, they aren’t much to look at, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They have a bald red head. This is actually helpful. Were their head covered with feathers it would collect far more disgusting rotting flesh when these birds dig food from body cavities.
They also have another unique adaptation. To keep cool they do something called urohydrosis. This means they pee on their legs. Since birds don’t sweat, evaporating liquid cools them off. Their urine also is antimicrobial, so it can kill bacteria they might have picked up during feeding.
People call them buzzards, but from a taxonomical point of view they really aren’t. Most birds we commonly called hawks are actually buzzards. The red tailed hawk is really a type of buzzard. I still call them hawks.
Turkey vultures sometimes suffer from pesticide damage. Poisoned animals occasionally become their food and this can be problematic. People sympathized with DDT’s effect on the bald eagle, but the turkey vulture faced the same problem. In general, they encounter fewer problems now than in previous years.
Both parents help with raising young. Males and females work together to build nests, incubate eggs and feed chicks. Nests are crude but both parents contribute.
Usually females only lay two eggs and these take at least 34 days to hatch. Therefore, reproduction is not prolific. Generally the young begin to fly at about two months of age.
Turkey vultures don’t have a distinctive call like most birds. They don’t possess a voice box suitable for making loud noises, so their sounds are limited to hisses and grunts.
Another related species is often seen among turkey vultures. It is the black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and these guys aren’t quite so docile. I’ve been around them and have never been threatened, but I have heard numerous reports of their attacking livestock. Some folks say they even attack people. I’ve never witnessed it.
Years ago, when I lived in West Virginia I did witness an unusual and unfortunate event involving a turkey vulture. It was during fall turkey season, when beards were not required for a legal kill. Back then turkeys had to be taken to a checking station.
To make a long story short, this inept hunter brought in a dead turkey vulture. My father-in-law, who truly had the gift of gab talked to the guy until the warden showed up. I just stood there and smiled. I have no regrets.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).