Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
|Size||Length: 64 – 81 cm (2)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
With a bright, pinkish-red head, brownish-black plumage and a two metre wingspan, the turkey vulture is a highly distinctive bird of prey (2). The head is almost entirely bald, except for some sparse black bristles, and often bears a number of whitish warts. The reddish colouration, which contrasts strongly with the whitish beak, develops as individuals mature, with juvenile birds initially possessing dark grey skin on the head, covered thinly by short downy feathers (2) (3). There are currently six recognised subspecies of turkey vulture (3), which can be distinguished by location, size and intensity of head colouration (2) (3).
The turkey vulture has an extremely expansive range, with the nominate subspecies Cathartes aura aura being found in south-western North America, south to Costa Rica and the Greater Antilles (3). An introduced population also occurs in Puerto Rico (2). Cathartes aura septentrionalis occupies eastern and south-eastern North America, while Cathartes aura meridionalis inhabits southern Canada and northern and central USA (3). Cathartes aura ruficollis is found in southern Central America and lowland South America east of Andes (3), as well as in Trinidad (2). Cathartes aura jota occupies the slopes and valleys of the Andes from Colombia to Patagonia, while Cathartes aura falklandicus is foundfrom Ecuador, south through the western Andes to Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands (3).
In accordance with the turkey vulture’s extensive range, its habitat preferences are extremely broad. Populations are found in coastal deserts, grassland, savanna, temperate forest, and even dense tropical rainforest (2) (3).
Active during the day, the turkey vulture is commonly encountered perched, with wings outstretched in the morning sun. The reason for this behaviour is not entirely clear, but it may be to dry out the feathers, prior to taking to the air (3). Once aloft, this species is a graceful flier, often gliding close to the ground, with wings angled upwards forming a slight V-shape (3) (4). The turkey vulture feeds almost exclusively on carrion and, unlike most birds, has a highly developed sense of smell, which it uses to locate carcasses, even under a cover of vegetation. This ability means that the turkey vulture is often the first scavenger to arrive at a carcass, allowing it to feed before the arrival of larger birds of prey, which drive this species away (2) (5). In response to its diet of rotting meat, the turkey vulture has evolved a remarkably high tolerance for microbial toxins, and plays an important ecological role in disposing of carcasses that could otherwise breed disease (5). Unlike some larger vultures, the turkey vulture very rarely kills, and only tackles sick or injured animals, nestlings and insects (2) (5).
The turkey vulture’s breeding season varies according to location, with populations in temperate parts of North America laying eggs between May and June, while populations in Central America lay between February and April (2). Breeding in tropical parts of South America is less well known (2), although egg-laying has been recorded between August and January in Chile (5). Turkey vultures do not provide nesting material, and simply lay a clutch of two eggs directly on the ground in shallow caves or under dense undergrowth, or alternatively in a hollow tree stump or log. After 38 to 41 days of incubation, the eggs hatch, and the young are brooded for a further 70 to 80 days before fledging (2).
Although turkey vulture populations in Central and South America generally remain in a single location throughout the year, North American subspecies make lengthy migrations. During the period between September and November, loose flocks of tens of thousands of birds form, which fly south to South America, sometimes as far as Paraguay, to spend the winter (2) (5).
There are currently no major threats to the turkey vulture, its population and range are extremely large, stable and in some areas are increasing (1) (2). Nevertheless, due to the unjustified negative associations sometimes held with regard to vultures, in some regions the turkey vulture faces local persecution (3) (6).
While there is little requirement at present to conserve the turkey vulture (1), the Turkey Vulture Society is working to promote scientific study of this fascinating and ecologically important species and reduce its persecution (6).
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- Carrion: the flesh of a dead animal.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (December, 2008)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guinea Fowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds (April, 2009)
- Snyder, N.F.R. and Snyder, H. (2006) Raptors of North America: natural history and conservation. Voyageur Press, Osceola, USA.
Turkey Vulture Society (April, 2009)