Their scientific name Cathartes Aura alludes to the important clean-up crew activity that turkey vultures perform by scavenging carrion. The turkey vulture feeds almost entirely on decaying animal matter, as do other vultures, but is unique in its ability to locate the decaying carrion by means of its sense of smell, although the birds extremely keen vision undoubtedly also plays a vital role. Experiments with chicken carcasses revealed that turkey vultures found hidden chickens as readily as those placed in plain view, indicating that prey can be located without actually being visible. This explains the sight of turkey vultures soaring just above dense woods: theyre searching by smell.
Gas pipeline companies have used the sight of turkey vultures as an indication of pipeline leaks, the birds attracted by the odor of ethyl mercaptan in the leaking gas. The turkey vulture has one of the best senses of smell of all avian species. A more aggressive cousin found in the southern states, the black vulture, has been observed to trail the turkey vulture until it locates food and then to take over the carcass. The black vulture lacks the turkey vultures highly developed sense of smell, but, unlike the turkey vulture, the black vulture will attack and kill prey. In the absence of carrion, turkey vultures have been observed to feed on rotten fruits or vegetables.
Although a large bird of eagle-like wingspan (2metres/6feet), the turkey vulture only weighs about 2kg (4.5 lbs). Appearing black from a distance, the bird is remarkably ugly up close with its red head and large, hooked, bulbous beak (and surrounded by a cloud of flies!).
In flight its a different story. The turkey vulture seldom needs to resort to much wing flapping but effectively makes use of wind currents or thermals to rise and float endlessly and effortlessly on its long, feathery-tipped wings. Uniquely identifiable from great distances, the turkey vulture soars with wings in a vee-shape above its body (dihedral), rocking or tilting from side to side. Always assume large soaring dark-colored flying birds are turkey vultures (not eagles or hawks) unless their wings are nearly straight and not tilting from side to side!
The breeding range of turkey vultures has expanded north to our area in recent decades, making the birds a fairly common sight from spring to fall. Numbers are increasing throughout their North American range. They are found south all the way to the tip of South America.
Be careful about falling asleep at the cottage outdoors in the sun!