Sep/Oct Bird of the Month: Turkey Vulture


Oh, drat, it’s just a vulture. How many times have you said that? …’just a vulture’. I admit it, I have. But, let’s find out why vulture’s aren’t ‘just vultures’. They are a seriously important part of the environmental clean-up crew.

         First of all, let’s identify this big, black, wobbly-soaring beast.  High in the sky, they have long, 2-toned wings, with a lighter shaded trailing edge. In poor light, they can appear all black. The wingtips appear ‘fingered’. The tail is typically wedge-shaped and a little longer. They have a black body, and a naked red head that is smaller when compared to other raptors.

The tell-tale sign of a turkey vulture is its flight: they are ‘tippy’ and seem unstable.  This is because their body is light for their total size. They hold their wings in a strong dihedral, or a “V” angling up away from their bodies, not flapping very often. 

diagram courtesy

diagram courtesy

Now that we’ve figured out we’re looking at a turkey vulture, let’s look at why they’re so important. They are part of nature’s clean-up crew. We see them in the middle of the road on a dead critter, or on the shoreline eating a dead fish. Vultures eating dead carcasses helps prevent the spread of disease. Many harmful, disease-causing bacteria can live on carcasses, but vultures have super strong stomach acids that will neutralize bacteria like anthrax or botulism. They can eat things that other scavengers can’t.

They prefer fresh killed critters, they’re softer…and stinkier. Vultures have an awesome sense of smell, being able to find carrion from 1 mile away. Some other cool (gross) things about vultures: 

*To keep cool in hot weather they urinate on their own legs. “Urohydrosis” also serves to kill bacteria & parasites on their legs from stomping around on dead things.

*Their heads & necks are bare to keep them healthier. No bacteria or parasites from their food can infect any feathers.

*For defense, they vomit. (It’s the worst, just ask any wildlife rehabber) It also lightens them for an easier take-off.

*When a large number are soaring together, they are called a ‘kettle’. When a group is feeding, they are called a ‘wake’.

*Hisses, grunts, and bill-clacks are about the only noises vultures make, as they have no syrinx.

*Oddly enough, vultures can easily be poisoned by lead. They will eat gut piles left by hunters, ingest lead shot, and become poisoned.

*International Vulture Awareness Day is the first Saturday of each September. (This year it will be September 1)

Something we can do to help our avian undertakers is spread awareness about them. Tell people how important they really are. Carry a ‘road-kill kit’ in your trunk: gloves, shovel, big trash bag, hand-sanitizer. If at all possible and SAFE, remove road-kill further off the road, into a field, etc. Vultures are a common cause of accidents as they feed in the middle of the road. Oftentimes they are killed as they feed.  As yucky as vultures seem to be, they are very important for the ecology.


Crossley, Richard; Liguori, Jerry; Sullivan, Brian The Crossley ID Guide; Raptors Richard Crossley, 2013

Handout from “Call of the Wild” rehab class: “Keep Calm and Carrion: Vultures in Rehabilitation and Education”, Sharon Burke and Jackie Kozlowski