Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are found throughout North and South America. They can be found from southern Canada to the tip of Cape Horn, and from the West Coast to the East Coast. They are sometimes incorrectly called buzzards, which is the English name for hawks of the genus buteo.

Turkey vultures are large birds, with a wingspan of up to six feet (1.8 meters). Like other vultures, turkey vultures appear to have naked heads. Their heads are covered with down that is fine enough to clearly see the bright red skin underneath.

Like humans, turkey vultures are omnivorous. They prefer carrion when they can find it, the fresher the better. They also eat fish in drying-up ponds, insects, grass, leaves, pumpkin, and seeds. Their feet and their beaks are too weak to effectively kill other creatures. Their feet seem to have evolved to optimize walking and hopping rather than killing or grasping.

Turkey vultures have a remarkable ability to destroy the bacteria and viruses they ingest. The droppings of a turkey vulture and the dry pellets (boluses) of hair, bone, and vegetation they regurgitate are free of disease. Considering their sometimes foul diet, this is quite an accomplishment.

Most birds do not have a good sense of smell, but the turkey vulture is an exception. A turkey vulture can detect odors measured in parts per trillion (thousand billion). By comparison, a human can detect the odor of a skunk only at one part per billion. Turkey vultures use both their eyesight and their keen sense of smell to locate their food.

The turkey vulture flies gracefully. It rarely flaps its wings, but instead soars delicately on the air currents, moderating and directing its progress by minute adjustments in the angle of its wings.

One of the ways by which one can identify a turkey vulture is the way it holds its wings in flight. Turkey vultures soar with their wings held in a dihedral form, which in simple terms means that if you look at a flying turkey vulture head-on, its wings and body form a gentle "v" shape.

When cornered, a turkey vulture may play dead. It may also suddenly vomit on its foe, hoping to revolt its aggressor into leaving it alone.

Turkey vultures have no call or cry. They sometimes hiss or groan.


The Turkey Vulture is a fairly harmless animal from a practical standpoint (to humans at least), but from a psychological angle, they can be pretty disquieting.

With a wingspan of up to 72 inches (around 1.8 meters) and the scaley looking head and feet (they have no feathers on their head or legs to prevent infection from their diet of carrion), they are sort of fearsome looking. Now imagine you're out walking alone in an old stone quarry, and you gain a following of a half-dozen of them wheeling patiently, drafting on the thermal currents rising up from the hot stone, circling, waiting for you to falter, weaken, maybe break your ankle and not be able to climb back out. There is something in the single minded and patient nature of their attention, knowing that every nerve in their body is waiting for some ill-fortune to befall you, hoping that you will make up their lunch. It's just downright creepy.

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