Turkey Vultures – Natures Cleaning Crew

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture

This is a Turkey Vulture (Cathautes aura).  I found this one posted on a house in my neighborhood.  These are really cool and under appreciated animals.  Their scientific name means “Cleansing Breeze” which has a good meaning.  They are commonly called “Buzzards” or “Carrion Crows” both of which are incorrect (they are actually more closely related to storks).  These birds have a large bald head (which is red in adults).  They feed on Carrion (dead and decaying tissue). Unlike most animals, and contrary what many people believe, they do not kill their prey.  They seek out dead animals with both a heightened sense of smell (which is unique in birds), and great eyesight.  They actually lack a syrinx (the voicebox of birds) so they do not make any distinct call.  The only sounds they do make are hisses and grunts.  They are very large birds, commonly mistaken for large hawks or eagles due to their size, but they only weigh 2-4 lbs.  They have a life expectancy of around 20 years in nature and 30 years in captivity.

The Turkey Vulture plays an important role in our ecosystem as the cleansers of dead animals.  They can be readily seen on the roadsides cleaning up roadkill.  They have many characteristics that allow them to be able to fill that niche.  First off, they have bald heads and feet so no decaying flesh will stick to them.  They also have a stomach acid that is about 100X more acidic than humans, allowing them to digest the decaying flesh more efficiently (they will also regurgitate this acid on predators as a defense mechanism).  They have a very efficient immune system which means they are not susceptible to many diseases (they actually do not carry any diseases that can be transferred to humans).  This is important because in places that have lost their vulture species, the animals that fill the role are wild dogs, coyotes, raccoon, rats, etc. all of which carry a number of diseases that can affect humans.  The Turkey Vultures are also known to poop on their own feet to both cool them down, and also utilize the antibacterial properties of their feces to keep their feet clean.

Turkey Vultures can be seen soaring in circles over a landscape.  This is how they migrate, by using the natural thermals to push them up as high as 2000 feet.  They soar from thermal to thermal to get where they are going.  They use their long wingspan to soar like a kite in the air and can go hours without flapping their wings.  They have been known to travel as long as 200 miles a day this way.

The population of these birds are not at risk and are pretty widespread.  The one concern is that these birds do eat roadkill as a big food source.  For that reason, cars are the number one killers of the Turkey Vulture.  Many conservation groups have teamed up to try to go around and move roadkill a safe distance from the road so that it will help these birds out, which is great for everyone because nobody likes to see a dead animal in the middle of the street anyway and these vultures are happy to get rid of them.

For more info on Turkey Vultures click here


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