Monday, November 20, 2017

Native Species Profile - Turkey Vulture

I started this post back in April, but never finished it.  It's time to do so... 

People have all sorts of signs that they indicate to note the passing of Winter and the arrival of Spring: the first flowers, the sound of frogs calling, the return of certain species of birds such as the American Robin, Tree Swallow, and Red-winged Blackbird.  Another bird that marks the changing of the seasons with its return is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).  Turkey Vultures are noticeably absent from Mid-Michigan from November to February.  In fact there are zero listing on eBird for Isabella County during the months of December and January.  November (2 sightings) and February (3 sightings) are not much better.

A soaring Turkey Vulture uses columns of warm air to soar.

Turkey Vultures are carrion eaters.  They typically feed on dead animals and will almost never kill their own prey.  They beak is quite weak and although they prefer fresh carcasses, they must usually wait for decay to soften their food enough to pierce the skin of larger animals.

They locate their meal largely by smell - they seem to be one of the few bird species with highly tuned senses of smell.  This sense of smell has proven somewhat useful to humans; turkey vultures will often circle over the locations of gas line leaks, attracted by the smell.  Somewhat morbidly, Turkey Vultures are also attracted by the smells of hospitals and can often be seen flying slowly overhead.

Turkey Vultures are very good at soaring.  They use updrafts of warm air to keep aloft and rarely need to flap their wings.  Instead they appear to wobbly back and forth slowly in the air, maintaining altitude with the slightest updrafts.  They can easy be identified by their slow sometimes wobbly flight.  Another thing that can help identify them in flight is the wide v-shaped position of their wings.

Turkey Vulture - note shallow V-shape made by its wings.

The Turkey Vulture is a fairly large bird, weighing approximately 4 pounds (2 kilograms) and having a wingspan measuring up to 70 inches (1.77 meters).   From beak to tail it measures up to 32 inches (0.81 meters).  It is not a beautiful bird, its reddish head is mostly bare of feathers so that the bird can easily keep it clean - bits of carrion are less likely to stick to bare skin than feathers. ( The bare heads may also help with regulating the bird's body temperature.)  The bird's body is covered with dark brown and black feathers.  It has a pale beak and legs.

Turkey Vultures have a very extensive range.  They are found year-round from the southeastern united States down to the Tip of South America.  In Summer their range carries them as far north as the prairie provinces of Canada.  A few birds make it as far north as James Bay.  Turkey Vulture's can be found in habitats ranging from open woodlands, to fields, mountains, deserts, and cities.

A Turkey Vulture sniffs around the remains of a deer carcass.

Basic Information
Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura
Size:  25-32” long,
          66-70” wingspan

Habitat:  open woodlands, fields, mountains, deserts, cities

Eats:  mostly carrion (dead mammals, birds, fish), insects, decaying fruit; typically does not kill own prey

Nest:  on the ground, cliffs, mammal burrows, hollow logs, abandoned hawk or heron nests, abandoned buildings

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