Turkey Vulture: Medium vulture, mostly black with red, featherless head and upper neck. Wings are held in a shallow V in flight. One of the few birds of prey that is able to use its sense of smell to find food. They are attracted to the smell of mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay.
Range and Habitat
Turkey Vulture: Breeds from southern British Columbia, central Saskatchewan, the Great Lakes, and Maine southward. Spends winters in the Southwest and eastern U.S. northward to southern New England. Ranges have expanded northward. Preferred habitats include deciduous forests, woodlands, and scrublands; often seen over adjacent farmlands.
New World Vultures (Cathartidae)
There are five families in the taxonomic order FALCONIFORMES (pronounced fal-kon-ih-FOR-meez), an order of raptorial birds that includes the Osprey, hawks, eagles, and vultures (it should be noted that these birds are alternately classified in an order named ACCIPITRIFORMES (pronounced ak-sip-it-ruh-FOR-meez) by some ornithological authorities).
The Cathartidae (pronounced kath-ART-uh-dee) is a family composed of seven species of vultures in five genera that occur in North and South America.
There are five species of new world vultures in four genera found in North America. Among these are the Turkey Vulture and the huge California Condor.
Members of the Cathartidae are known for their keen ability to locate carrion, their primary food source. In the case of the Turkey Vulture, it’s amazing sense of smell is used to find dead animals.
New world vultures are large birds with short to medium length tails, and long, broad wings adapted for soaring (the California Condor actually has the largest wingspan of any living North American bird). Being scavengers of decaying flesh, their thin, hooked beaks and feet with sort talons aren’t as strong as those of raptors that catch live prey.
Black is the predominant color of vulture plumage although some species show a bit of gray or white in the wings, the exception being the mostly white King Vulture of tropical regions. The heads of new world vultures lack feathers and can be black, red, yellow, or orange.
New world vultures in North America are found in most habitats except for the boreal zone and high mountains. The most widespread species is the Turkey Vulture, a common bird in much of the United States and southern Canada. In the southeastern United States, it is joined by the Black Vulture. At a few sites in the southwest it shares the skies with the very rare California Condor.
Although the Black Vulture and the California Condor are non-migratory, many populations of Turkey Vultures make annual migrations in huge flocks to Central and South America.
New world vultures are usually found in flocks although they don’t nest in colonies. These soaring birds take to the sky on a daily basis when the air warms up enough to provide them with “thermals” – currents of warm air that flow upward. Once they are up and riding these thermals, they search for carrion with their sense of smell (Turkey Vultures only), and keen eyesight that is also used to watch for other vultures descending to feed. At a carcass, the feeding hierarchy is established by size although groups of Black Vultures can drive away solitary Turkey Vultures.
The California Condor is a critically endangered species that has been brought to the brink of extinction by a variety of changes to its environment, it’s susceptibility to lead poisoning from ingesting bullets from “gut piles” left by hunters after field dressing game, and persecution from ranchers. Its very low reproductive rate has made it difficult for this large species to recover in numbers although a captive breeding program has been successful in increasing condor numbers from a few dozen to over three hundred in captivity and the wild.
New world vultures defecate on their own feet to keep cool. The water in their droppings has the same function as sweating; the water evaporates to provide a cooling effect.