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Species Spotlight: Turkey Vulture

The clicking of the film reel ticks away in the theater as the unbearable rays of the sun beat down on the desert scene. A tumbleweed (Russian Thistle - Salsola ssp) stumbles by: the only sign of activity for miles around.

“I’ll leave you out for the buzzards!” the antagonist screams at our hero, with both hands raring his trusty pistols.

Cue the buzzards. A pair of ominous, black-winged birds circle the sky, waiting for one of our characters to finally meet their end.

Buzzards, the colloquial term for vultures in the U.S., are an iconic bird species for their appearance in Western cowboy movies and their association with death. The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), one of the three main types of vultures seen in America, is the only type of vulture found above the open fields of Orange County, California. Though an unpleasant sight for some, Turkey Vultures are a fascinating and valuable species and are often considered nature’s janitors or cleaning crew.

The Turkey Vulture carries a strikingly bright, red head. Their wrinkled, naked head is reminiscent of turkeys, hence their name. They have stark black necks and feathers on the body that brighten on the ends to a lighter brown. They are a large species of bird, with their wingspan ranging from 65 to 70 inches in length. In flight, the tips of their wings appear very long, and their tails extend past their toe tips. Their dark bodies contrast against their pale legs and beaks, which are strong enough to break through cowhide.

PC: Abhishek Kambhampati

Turkey Vultures are also recognizable by their special flight patterns. Instead of repeatedly flapping their wings, Turkey Vultures soar like eagles or raptors. They utilize the updrafts from changes in topography to ride the current to the top and circle their way back down. But unlike other birds of prey, they have dihedral, or curved v-shape wings that optimize lift. Seen from afar, Turkey Vultures appear to be wobbling and teetering, as they continuously shift the angle of their wings to affect their course of flight.

PC: Matt Davis

Turkey Vultures are one of 26 species of partial migrants in North America. This means that one fraction of their population is migratory, moving from one region to another according to the seasons, while another is sedentary, remaining in one region all year long. Northern populations tend to be more migratory, while southern populations are more sedentary.

Returning in the spring, migrating Turkey Vultures travel in flocks from several individuals to thousands at once. Preferring warm trade winds over cold drafts, Turkey Vultures will migrate during the daytime. They tend to soar along coastlines, shorelines, and mountain ridges, while avoiding large bodies of water that require long stretches of powered flight. They will return each year to the same area, where they mate and nest.

Turkey Vultures display a short but captivating aerial courtship ritual, where one bird follows the other around to mimic their flight patterns in the air. These displays are usually short, but may repeat for hours at a time. Following these displays, Turkey Vultures remain monogamous, meaning that they will stay with one partner until death.

Instead of building a nest, Turkey Vultures will lay their eggs in recesses in ledges, caves, hollow logs, crevices, or even on the ground. They also utilize pre-made nests of other birds, mammal burrows, and abandoned buildings. They will lay from one to three eggs in one clutch, with incubation lasting up to five weeks. Both parents will take turns brooding for the first five days, patiently sitting on the eggs until they hatch.

Once the babies hatch, they are fed through regurgitation, directly into the mouth or on the ground next to them. The baby Turkey Vultures fledge at 60 to 80 days, and for the first one to three weeks after their flight, they will perch near the nesting site to be fed by their parents. Slowly venturing from their nest at that point, they will soon disperse into the world by 12 weeks old.

Turkey Vultures have an important role in our local ecosystems by scavenging, or searching for and eating animal carcasses. Scavenging is not only practiced by select species of birds, but is also crucial to the balance of our ecosystems.

The Turkey Vulture’s heightened sense of smell allows them to locate carrion, or dead animals, more easily. The part of the brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large in the Turkey Vulture compared to other birds. As it soars low above the ground, it can locate and target the scent of carrion from over a mile away. They also have other adaptations to aid in scavenging, such as strong stomach acid that allows them to eat anything without being sick. Their iconic bald head also helps them by preventing rotting meat from sticking to their feathers while they pry into carrion.

PC: Jim Hughes

Scavengers such as Turkey Vultures play a critical role in the food web, as they speed up the process of the breakdown of organic material, known as decomposition. Without scavengers, the waste from carrion introduces bacteria and other pathogens to animals in the area, including humans. Besides lowering the risk of disease, scavengers also aid in the aesthetic pleasantness of the area.

Turkey Vultures are currently not an endangered species in California, but the same cannot be said about other vulture relatives in North America, such as the California Condor. Due to their special diets, vultures face dangers if their prey is contaminated. When Turkey Vultures consume the carcasses of animals that perished from rodenticides or similar poisons, the harmful chemicals may kill them. Though unlikely to transmit or be infected with disease, avian flu is another concern. There was a concentrated case of avian flu in Maryland in April of 2023, where many vultures were found dead, infected with avian flu. If a strong strain of avian flu causes large numbers of vultures to perish, then those that are not infected will consume the carcasses of those that were infected, and this cycle perpetuates until whole populations are ravaged.

Hunters using lead bullets is another threat. When hunters leave behind carcasses or gut piles of game that were killed using lead bullets, Turkey Vultures will consume the carcasses along with tiny pieces of lead bullets that break off inside the animals. Consuming too much lead will lead to lead poisoning and eventually death.

Vultures are a vital species to our environment, so it is within our duty to protect them. After all, working day in and day out, cleaning up the messes in our environment, Turkey Vultures are our helpful cleaning crew!

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