Despite their grotesque appearance, the turkey vulture is a good guy that should be respected for the job it does. What other land and/or sky creature, besides the scavenging coyote, would be even remotely interested in cleaning up all the germs found on rotting flesh, let alone be equipped with the bodily mechanisms to do so? Not only does the turkey vulture oblige us with the cleanup, when roadkill occurs, there is not another bird nor beast that is as uniquely qualified for the job.
The Unique Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture was blessed by evolution with about the best sense of smell in the entire animal kingdom. Its unique beak has a hole bored through the very top, which allows for this tremendous sense of smell. While this “hole” may at first appear to be a flaw, it is in fact one of the most unique odor-sensing tools found in Nature. By swaying slowly back and forth as it glides high above the landscape, the turkey vulture catches and processes even the most remote aromas — even from miles away.
Once the turkey buzzard, as it is sometimes called, gets a whiff of dinner, its excellent eyesight quickly hones in on roadkill and other decaying meat. The turkey vulture’s amazing eyesight allows this king of the sky to pick out a three to four-foot carcass from up to nearly four miles away! This amazing feat explains why roadkill disappears so quickly.
Interesting Facts about the Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture is fascinating and oh so misunderstood.
- Are turkey vultures aggressive? While the turkey vulture is not vicious nor aggressive in any manner, and seldom will attack or protect itself with beak and talons, it will spit and hiss to deter an enemy.
- Is turkey vomit corrosive? Because it is a large bird, the turkey vulture often vomits upon take off to lighten the load. Because this vomit is often projectile, it is thought to be used as a defense mechanism, as well. Unfortunately, turkey vulture vomit contains a highly corrosive enzyme needed to breakdown the putrid flesh they eat and can actually burn on contact if it gets in the eyes and nose membranes or on the bare skin of its enemies.
- Is a turkey vulture a bird of prey? While turkey vultures hunt, and are one of North American’s birds of prey, they actually hunt the dead. Because the turkey vulture does not come equipped with extremely sharp talons and beaks, it makes it much harder for this bird to tear into living flesh, make a kill, and/or cut into the fur and muscle of a fresh kill. To make it a bit more iffy, the turkey buzzard actually prefers its food to be less than putrid, or only a few hours old, so the window of opportunity closes rapidly on dinner if other vultures and scavengers are around. While it is highly unlikely that a turkey vulture will kill its dinner, as very few accounts of this happening have ever been documented, the turkey buzzard is almost always the first to detect the carcass and often leads other vultures and birds of prey, which don’t have the same odor and sight equipment, to the carcass. This can result in lost dinner. Additionally, when the turkey vulture does find an injured animal, it may wait calmly for several days beside a dying animal in order to get a meal. This act of patiently waiting for death to arrive is one of the reasons this bird is so vilified.
- Do turkey vultures defecate on themselves? The runny, chalky white feces (or urine, as it is sometimes called) of the turkey vulture, is also slightly corrosive, but it, too, serves a purpose. The turkey vulture defecates on its legs and often on other birds beneath it in an attempt to coat its lower extremities with what serves as the equivalent of an antibacterial soap, good only for turkey vultures. This also helps the bird remain cooler.
- Why does the turkey vulture have a red head? The fleshy red head makes it easier for the bird to shove its head, clear up to the shoulders, into carcasses to strip flesh. Because its head is fleshy, bits of raw meat and blood can’t get lodged in its feathers and around its eyes and cause infection.
- Why is a turkey vulture classified as a New World Vulture? The turkey vulture is classified as a New World Vulture because it has a more blunt beak and chicken-like talons, which prevent it from hunting and killing its own prey. Despite this, the turkey vulture is still considered one of North American‘s large birds of prey. Old World Vultures are vultures that are equipped with sharp talons and beaks, such as those of the black headed vulture.
- What does a turkey vulture look like? This vulture stands approximately three feet in height and has a wing span of up to six feet. Typically, when soaring the air currents, the turkey vulture holds its wings in the classic V formation. Because of this stance, this vulture is the easiest of North America’s birds of prey to identify from a distance.
- What do turkey vulture babies look like? The turkey vulture lays one to two eggs in slight depressions in the ground or in caves and leaves the chicks unattended until feeding time. At 10 weeks of age the chicks are able to fly. Juvenile turkey vultures are born with white feathers and a black skinned head. The feathers slowly turn black and the skin on their heads turn red as the birds mature. (This is not to be mistaken for the black headed vulture, which is another of North America’s great birds of prey but from the Old World Vulture classification.Old World Vultures are equipped with sharp talons and beaks and do actively kill their own prey, though they will also steal a carcass from a turkey vulture. Sometimes this “sharing” is welcome, as the black headed vulture can tear the fur of the carcass open, which allows the turkey vulture access to the softer flesh.)
Characteristics of the Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture was made to eat rotting flesh — we know this based on its characteristics and genetic makeup. You’ve probably seen a turkey vulture at some point in your life and were grossed out by it’s appearance. Most individuals recall seeing one of these birds, or, as is usually the case, a whole flock of them on the branches of a dead tree, looking for all the world as if they just stepped out of a horror film. Or perhaps you’ve seen them fighting over a carcass along the highway or soaring through the sky as they ride the air currents in search of food.
If most people were honest, they’d say — regardless of what service this bird provides — that turkey vultures are a little on the scary side. From a distance they’re majestic kings of the sky, but up close this bird does look frightening!
The turkey vultures greasy black feathers, bald red head, beady eyes and feces coated legs does not create the typical guest you’d want to bring home for dinner or want lodging on your property. But though turkey vultures often prefer to roost in the middle of fields or forests in dead trees or lofty pines, they will take up residence in the tree in your backyard — even if you live in town — if there’s a highway nearby and that’s where the food is to be found.
But all in all, turkey vultures are the good guys. Think of them as the men who come along a parade with a wheelbarrow to pick up the horse’s leftovers. As long as humans watch turkey vultures from a distance and allow them to clean up roadkill without bother we can live side by side in peace and harmony.
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