NatureMapping Animal Facts

Turkey Vulture

distribution map

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
El Buitre de Turquía - en Español
Species Code: CAAUR

The naked red heads of the adult turkey vultures resemble those of turkeys, hence the name. Their genus name, Cathartes, means "cleanser" because that's what they do: clean up carcasses from woods and roads.

Description: The Turkey Vulture is a large soaring bird that feeds on carrion (the dead and rotting body of an animal). It's recognized by the featherless red head, white bill, large brown-black body and yellow feet. They can be easily spotted along roadways displaying their long wingspan and smooth soaring flight. While soaring it holds the wings slightly up in a V-shape. The wingspan extends to 170-178 cm (67-70 in). Weight: 2000 g (70.6 ounces) Size: 64-81 cm (25-32 in)

Turkey Vulture photo by NP

Calls: Usually silent. Makes hiss at carcasses, roosts, and nest.
Listen to calls of this species »

Range/ Habitat: The Turkey Vultures breeds from southern Canada throughout the United States and southward through southern South America and the Caribbean.

This species is common in the lower forest zones and the western steppe zones on the eastern Cascades. They are uncommon and local in lower forest zones east of the Okanogan River and south to Rock Lake. They are apparently absent from the Washington Blue Mountains, Olympic Mountains, and the outer coast as a breeding bird. They are uncommon in lower forest zones of western Washington east of the Sitka Spruce zone. The major part of the population is found along the lower slopes of the eastern Cascades. It nests in small caves or ledges on high cliffs in these regions.

Click the range map to learn more about the distribution of Turkey Vultures in Washington.

Diet: Turkey Vultures eat a wide variety of carrion, from small mammals to dead cows. Also some insects, other invertebrates, and some fruit are consumed.

turkey vulture egg

Nesting: The is no nest structure. The female Turkey Vulture lays 1 to 3 eggs directly on ground in caves, crevices, mammal burrows, hollow logs, under fallen trees, or in abandoned buildings. The eggs are creamy-white with dark blotches around large end.

Behavior: Turkey vultures are almost exclusively scavengers (Cathartes means "purifier"), so this species rarely kills small animals. They form communal roosts which facilitate group foraging and social interactions. The roosts range in size from a few birds to several thousand.

Turkey Vultures are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance - called the "horaltic pose." The horaltic pose is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria. 

Turkey Vulture photo by NP

Groups of vultures spiraling upward to gain altitude are called "kettles". As vultures catch thermal updrafts they take on the appearance of water boiling in a pot – hence the name kettle.

Why do turkey vultures defecate on their feet?

During the hot weather, turkey vultures will defecate on their feet to cool them off. Since a vulture's digestive juices kill bacteria--which is why vultures don't get sick from eating rotten meat--defecating on their legs might even work as an antiseptic wash.

Why do turkey vultures vomit?

Their method of 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. Even the vulture babies will vomit on other animals. Though these behaviors might distress people, they serve turkey vultures well. Vulture vomit is an effective predator repellent.

What sounds do they make?

Click to play sounds of the Turkey Vulture >

Did you know?:

  • The Turkey Vulture does not build a nest - they lay eggs directly on the ground.
  • The Turkey Vulture’s highly developed olfactory sense enable individuals to locate concealed carcasses
  • They can fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of dead animals.
  • A Turkey Vulture live up to 20 years in the wild.
  • People mistakenly call turkey vultures, buzzards, which is the British name for certain hawks.

Turkey Vulture Silhouette

Animal silhouettes available to purchase »

Photos: Natures Pics

More information

All About Birds: Turkey Vulture

Birds of North American Online: Turkey Vulture

Kern Valley Vulture Wath - Turkey Vulture Facts

Turkey Vulture photos »

Vulture Society - Turkey Vulture Facts

Home | About Us | How to Participate | Biodiversity Modules | Projects | Maps | News | Resources