Turkey Vulture

Bird of the Month: Turkey Vulture

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Kevin Juberg / Audubon Photography Awards (Turkey Vulture)

PC: Kevin Juberg / Audubon Photography Awards (Turkey Vulture)

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura

AOU Band code TUVU

The genus name Cathartes (kath-ARE-tis) is from the Greek, meaning cleanser, hence scavenger. The species name aura (OW-rah) is a South American or Mexican name from the Latinized name aurum for gold. The common name is from the red skin of the head and dark body feathers resembling a turkey. It is a large dark bird in all plumages with the rear half of the wings being a silver color. Adults have a naked red head and pale bill. The TUVUs are excellent at soaring on uprising air and rarely have to flap their wings - the wings are held in a “V” while rocking back and forth. The bird has an exceptional sense of smell and can find its primary food, carrion, by odor over a long distance. They feed mainly on dead animals, preferring those that are recently dead. They provide a very useful service by getting rid of smelly carcasses. Sometimes they will feed on decaying vegetable matter, live insects or fish in dried up ponds. The TUVU can be seen over most of North America in the spring and summer. In Washington state they are a fairly common resident of open country lowlands west of the Cascades and along lower slopes on the eastside. They are a common migrant across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the fall with many arriving in the vicinity of Salt Creek County Park from south Vancouver Island. Many observers spend a couple of weeks in the area counting the migrating birds each fall. This data is collected and evaluated in an ongoing study of Pacific Northwest vultures by Diann MacRae. Turkey Vulture sighting information is welcomed and should be sent to Diann at tvulture@vei.net. Courtship display consist of several birds gathering in a circle on the ground and doing ritual hopping movements around the circle with wings spread. They nest in sheltered areas like hollow trees or logs, crevices in cliffs, under rocks, in caves or in old buildings. No nest is built and 1 to 3 eggs, but usually 2 are laid on debris or on the flat bottom of the nest. The eggs are whitish with blotches of  brown and lavender. Both parents incubate the eggs for 30-41 days. One parent stays with the young most of the time. They feed the young by regurgitation. The age of the young at first flight is about 9-10 weeks. TUVUs are generally silent, but will hiss or grunt if threatened. The oldest known TUVU is one that lived at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. for 20 years, 9 months.