Turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, in flight.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

The misunderstood vulture needs some of our love.

Vultures are often described as ugly, or even alien looking. And they eat dead things, ugh! But their bad reputation is not deserved.

Without vultures, our planet is doomed. Ok, maybe a bit melodramatic. But they keep our land clean from dead animal carcasses which is a very important job. So let’s start at the beginning.

  How Many Species Of Vultures Are There?

Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura
Lifespan: 16 years
Weight: 3.3 pounds
Length: 2.1 to 2.7 feet
Color Appears black from a distance but up close are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill.
Sexual Maturity: 3 to 5 years
Number of Broods: 1 brood
Gestation Period: 28 to 40 days
Clutch Size: 1 to 3 eggs
Chicks Fledge: 68 to 80 days
Adult Predators: Golden and Bald Eagles,
Horned Owls,
Red-tailed Hawks

In the US, there are 3 vultures, the Black Bulture, the Turkey Vulture and the California condor. The Condor, the largest bird in North America, was on the brink of extinction but was saved in one of the greatest conservation success stories ever. Only the Turkey Vulture is found in Wisconsin.

  Turkey Vulture Habitat

Turkey vultures occupy a diverse range of habitats. They are found in forested as well as open environments. Turkey vultures can be found anywhere they can effectively find a carrion food supply. At night, they roost in trees, on rocks, and other high secluded spots.

They are easily habituated to humans and human development.

  Physical Description

Turkey vultures vary from 3 to 4 pounds and can have a total length between 2 to 3 feet. Sexes do not differ, all have a brownish black plumage with a bare head and neck. The head and neck skin color can vary from pink to bright red.

Based on their wing surface to weight ratio, turkey vultures have light wing loading. This makes them more buoyant in air than other vultures and better able to utilize thermals to help them stay in flight with minimal energy usage.


Turkey vultures usually roost in large community groups, but search for food independently during daylight hours. Groups as large as several hundred vultures have been observed to roost together. Populations in Wisconsin migrate seasonally to warmer weather.

Scientists that study and tag vultures have discovered that most, maybe all, Wisconsin vultures migrate to South America. The birds return to Wisconsin and their summer feeding grounds in the early spring.

Turkey Vulture self-defense is to vomit their food, which they can send sailing 10 feet. If a turkey vulture is disturbed or harassed, it will throw up on the animal who is bothering it.

  Communication And Perception

Turkey vulture, Cathartes aura.

Turkey vultures lack complexity in vocalizations. Most vocalizations are grunts, hisses, and barking sounds, used mainly for predator deterrence.

Visual cues are used in mating rituals and may be used in other forms of communication.

Turkey vultures have a well-developed sense of smell and are one of the only species of birds worldwide that uses smell extensively. They use their keen sense of smell and their vision to locate carcasses.


Turkey vulture diets vary depending on their habitat. Vultures living around agriculture feed mainly on the carrion of domestic animals, mostly livestock. They also rely heavily on roadkill in areas of human development.

Turkey vultures preferentially feed on smaller carcasses, but will feed on dead animals of any size. They prefer freshly dead carcasses but cannot get through the thick skin of larger animals, so must wait for some decay to enable entering body cavities.

To find their food they rely on their keen sense of smell and vision. They are one of the few bird species that has an acute sense of smell.

  Mating And Reproduction

Turkey vulture chicks, Cathartes aura.

The breeding season of the turkey vulture starts in March, peaks in April to May, and continues into June. The courtship rituals involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In the air, one bird closely follows another while flapping and diving.

Vultures typically reach sexual maturity in 3 to 5 years. They usually lay 2 eggs per clutch and 1 clutch per year. Eggs hatch in about 40 days. Young are cared for by both adults for about 3 months.

Vultures do not build nests, but lay their eggs in dense thickets, hollow logs, caves, abandoned buildings, and on rock ledges. Turkey vultures often nest in abandoned barns and warehouses.

  Turkey Vultures Benefit The Environment

Unlike most other birds, these members of the Clean Up Crew feed on carrion, which helps rid the land of decaying animal carcasses, reducing the risk of harmful bacteria and diseases from spreading.

Their hooked bills are designed for tearing off their food. Their distinctive red heads have no feathers, so as not to make them dirty while feeding. Turkey vultures will often stick their entire head inside the carcasses of which they are feeding on.

  Do Vultures Make Good Pets?

By law, a person cannot keep one in captivity. The only exceptions are zoos (which must posess special permits for each animal they hold) and wildlife rehabilitators, who can obtain permits to keep a permanently injured vulture for educational or surrogate purposes.

You can find many ways to interact with vultures close-up. Try to find a local wildlife center with a non-releasable vulture, where you can volunteer. Or, if you are truly passionate about animals, consider becoming a rehabilitator yourself! There are very few rehabilitators who are willing to care for vultures.


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