If you have ever seen a large black bird soaring unsteadily in circles over a highway or farmland, there is a good chance that it is a turkey vulture. These extraordinary birds with red faces are deeply misunderstood social birds that play a big part in American landscapes’ health.
Turkey vultures live in many states in the U.S. and across Canada. They migrate south to Mexico, Columbia, and Ecuador when temperatures drop. They nest in abandoned nests or on ledges.
The more we take the time to learn and appreciate turkey vultures, the better we can look to repair their reputation.
How Common are Turkey Vultures?
Turkey vultures have the widest range of the three New World vultures found in the United States. They are found year-round in some southern states and east up to Tennessee and most of the east coast. Elsewhere, they can be found during the breeding season, although there are areas of some central and northern states where they don’t live.
Some inexperienced birders may confuse them with the black vulture, often seen hanging around them. The black vulture has a smaller range and a black head rather than the distinctive red facial features of the turkey vulture.
If you are lucky enough to see one of these majestic birds, you will most likely do so around highways and farmland. With that said, you can also find turkey vultures on the roofs of houses, especially around farmland.
This can be alarming, especially if they congregate in large numbers. There is a good chance they will move on soon if there is no food source. This unease around these vultures leads to some unfortunate preconceptions and prejudices about these birds.
The turkey vulture has a much softer side in its social and nesting behavior. These vultures are social birds and dependant on large community groups to thrive. These groups can reach numbers in the hundreds as the birds come together to roost during the night. They will head off on their own to find food, with some individuals sharing a meal where they can. This social inclusion also allows for some black vultures in those roosts.
When the breeding season arrives, they tend to nest on ledges or abandoned nests of other birds. As with their feeding behavior, it is all about expending minimal effort where it isn’t required. Nesting on cliffs and other suitable ledges, such as abandoned buildings, allows them to use less energy.
Turkey vultures come together to form groups for courtship rituals around March and pair up to nest. Lucky pairs may mate for life, but those that lose a partner will find a new one. The altricial young hatch after 30 to 40 days and stay in the nest for 10 to 11 weeks.
The migration route for breeding birds can vary depending on where they are. Those in the northwest will head south into California and other southwestern states but may go as far as Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, or Ecuador. Those in the North East won’t go nearly as far, and some may stop in the Carolinas for winter.
An adult turkey vulture has no natural predators and only has to worry about humans. Those that fledge and reach adulthood can enjoy many years roaming across the U.S. Nestlings could become the prey of raptors like golden eagles or opportunistic mammals raiding nests. Raccoons and opossums are known to feed on young vultures.
Are Turkey Vultures Dangerous To Pets?
It is important to know that these birds are scavengers, not hunters. There are misconceptions about turkey vultures being dangerous to humans and their pets. Much of their diet comes from dead and dying animals, and they will not go after any pets running around in your backyard.
You may see them flying low to the ground as they search for the smell of ethyl mercaptan. This is essentially the smell of death – a gas produced by the beginnings of dead animals’ decay. Turkey vulture’s claws aren’t strong enough to pick up a dog or a cat. They don’t have a raptor’s powerful feet with a firm grip and sharp talons. An eagle is far more likely to see a small pet as possible prey than a vulture.
Still, people are uneasy about vultures being around as they are associated with death and are seen as a bad omen. One would never attack you. If you upset it by getting too close, it might vomit partially digested remains on you instead.
It doesn’t help that farmers and other landowners continue to vilify vultures for their actions. Vultures will scavenge dead animals on their land, including any natural fatalities in livestock, such as stillborn lambs or calves. Also, there are cases of black vultures killing newborn cattle, with turkey vultures following behind to eat their share. The two birds are unfortunately lumped together by many farmers.
Do Turkey Vultures Carry Disease?
There is the notion that turkey vultures bring disease because they eat dead animals. There could be harmful bacteria in their droppings and around nest sites, but it isn’t worse than other bird droppings, and there is no reason to be near it.
Their reputation is hindered because the turkey Vulture will defecate and urinate on its legs to cool down, but this isn’t that uncommon. These vultures are great at pest and disease control by clearing up the decaying carcasses before they can spread nasty bacteria and illnesses.
While turkey vultures are protected under federal law in the United States, there are still risks of shooting and poisoning by those that despise them and continue to see them as dangerous vermin. Those caught can face fines of up to $15,000 and a six-month prison stay.
It is a shame that we still need such protection for this iconic species when it does so much good and poses no harm. This is especially true when so many vulture species worldwide are in trouble or even critically endangered. This fascinating and essential species should receive far more interest and respect for its role in ecosystems across North America.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.