Turkey Vulture

by Dan Weisz

Web presentation by Douglas Everett @ Hummingbird Market

“In cartoon fiction, vultures are ghastly portents of death, cycling ominously overhead when explorers are lost in the desert.  In reality, vultures play a much more wholesome role.  By cleaning up the carcasses of dead animals, they act as the sanitation department of the natural world.”…..from a fact sheet from the Desert Museum  https://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_vultures.php 

Vultures are designed for living on carrion.  Since they may have to wait a few days in between meals, they have developed the ability to burn up very little energy while they search for food.   They can soar for hours searching for food with virtually no flapping of their broad wings.  And in the mornings, they will wait for the air to warm up so they can find thermals to lift them into the sky with as little effort as possible.

On a cool morning this week, I saw quite a few turkey vultures in the Santa Cruz Flats area.  They were perched on a variety of surfaces, all waiting for the air to warm up.

Perched on a telephone pole:  Turkey Vultures are large brown/black birds with a featherless head.

Perched in a tree:  That naked, wrinkled head may not look so attractive but the lack of feathers is very helpful when vultures are involved in the messy business of sticking their heads into carcasses and tearing open dead animals.

Perched on the ground overlooking a farm field:  Vultures of the Americas look similar to those in the Old World but are actually not related at all.  Through convergent evolution, they developed the same attributes and are living the same lifestyle, but are unrelated to the “buzzards” of Europe, Asia and Africa.

Perched on a wire:  The Turkey Vulture got its name from the red head and dark feathers resembling a turkey, and the Latin word “vulturus” meaning “tearer”, a reference to its feeding habits.

Perched on an irrigation ditch:  Turkey Vultures weigh about 4.5 pounds and are about two and a half feet long.  Their wingspan is well over five feet.

While the morning was too cool to see any vultures flying, I’m including two photos below that I took in the past.  The shot below shows a turkey vulture flying low to the ground in Avra Valley.  The undersides of its flight feathers are much paler, giving it a two-toned appearance.

This turkey vulture was swooping in for a landing in Mexico.  While soaring, these birds have a tippy kind of flight, but I thought the descent in this photo showed this bird to be very adept at flying, almost as graceful as a ballet dancer.