The other day I was working at a local country fair, and I happened to spot a birds of prey show on my way to the washrooms. So I timed my lunch break to coincide with one of the shows, because I absolutely love birds, and especially birds of prey. I ended up seeing parts of the show three times that weekend, and fell in love with all the birds in it. Some of them I have blogged about (the American kestrel, and the great horned owl) but I will definitely be writing about the others at some point.

A turkey vulture perched majestically on a tree. So pretty! Image by Don DeBold from San Jose, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s bird, the turkey vulture, was one of the most impressive birds at the show. I thought he was beautiful, though I’m sure some people would disagree with me. Turkey vultures are quite big, with wingspans of 160-183 cm, and weights of up to 2.3 kg. Their plumage is brown black, and they have the distinctive unfeathered vulture head. Both the head and legs and feet are pink, though the feet often appear white. This is because turkey vultures defecate on their legs, which helps cool them down, as the water in the excretion evaporates.

Vultures, of course, are known for their disgusting food habits. They eat almost exclusively carrion, which is gross, but someone has to eat dead things, so good on turkey vultures for cleaning up our roads. This lovely diet is why they have no feathers on their heads — can you imagine having to stick a feathered head into a rotting carcass? I don’t think it would be very pleasant.

Turkey vultures find their meals with a highly developed sense of smell. This is a rare ability among avian species, and other birds take advantage of the turkey vulture’s excellent nose. King vultures, black vultures and condors will follow turkey vultures to find carrion, and thanks to their larger size, get first pick of the meat on the carcass. It isn’t all bad for the turkey vulture though; their beaks are very weak, and so they cannot tear through the skin of many dead animals. The other vultures and condors do this for them, so everyone is happy.

Turkey vultures have nostrils that go straight through their heads, to increase the area available for smelling. Image by Dori, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Turkey vultures roost in large flocks, though they hunt solitarily. Mating involves a courtship ‘dance’, where several birds come together in a circle, and hop around with their wings spread. It makes me think of some kind of pagan ritual, and who knows, maybe to the vultures it is. Female vultures lay two eggs in a protected site, such as a cave, cliff, or thicket. She doesn’t build a nest, but both parents incubate and later feed the chicks until they are ten or eleven weeks old. If the nest is threatened, turkey vultures have a nasty way of defending themselves: they will regurgitate half digested, rotten food into the faces of their attackers. If I were a predator, I would definitely stay away from turkey vultures.

You may be wondering where you can find these amazing birds. They live in the Americas, from southern Canada all the way through South America. They have recently expanded north, thanks to the construction of highways, which provide the birds with plenty of thermals on which to soar (and also lots of tasty roadkill). They can live in a wide range of environments (after all, things die in every habitat), and are quite common birds. In fact, I saw one at the side of the road the other day, munching on some poor dead animal. It was super cool!

Cover image by Ingrid Taylar, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit