Bird of the Week #10: Turkey Vulture

I know what you’re thinking.

“Mr. Great Plains Bird Man, vultures are gross. You could have picked any raptor for the first Raptor Week raptor, but you chose the Turkey Vulture. Number one: ew. Number two: why?”

What I chose for the three raptors for this week was mostly dependent on what I could get good pictures of. My visit to Eagle Valley Raptor Center netted me some great shots, but three of the birds there stood out. The first is the Turkey Vulture, which was not my ideal first choice before I got to meet one. But after actually getting to interact with one, I’ve changed my mind and I am steadfast in my belief that these awesome birds are worthy of the spotlight.

All of the photographs in this article are of the same Turkey Vulture: Herman Munster. Herman, or Hermie, is a permanent resident at the Eagle Valley Raptor Center. I don’t recall what specific reason prohibits him from returning to the wild, but his trust of humans is almost reason enough. All of the permanent resident birds at EVRC are unable to survive in their natural habitats. And while that’s sad, Hermie does live a great life where he gets to eat lots and lots of mice.

Yummy mice!

By the way, I hope you’re not squeamish about dead mice because there’s dead mice in these pictures.

Anyway, let’s actually get down to talking about the Turkey Vulture.

The Turkey Vulture is a New World vulture found all over the Americas, save for the northern half of Canada and Alaska. Turkey Vultures are the most numerous vulture in the Americas, so a lot of the vultures you’ll see around are of the turkey variety. The name makes sense. Like turkeys, Turkey Vultures have bare red heads. This makes them look kind of gross.

The closer I got to Herman, though, the more I started to think they’re kind of cute in their own way. I know, I know, you probably think I’m a little crazy. But check out of some the pictures and look in particular at his eyes. They also have gorgeous plumage.

Like all vultures, Turkey Vultures are scavengers who forage for animal carcasses. They’ll eat other things if the opportunity presents itself, but these vultures especially suited for locating freshly killed animals. Unlike the whopping majority of birds, Turkey Vultures can hunt by smell. Their noses are specially tuned for detecting ethyl mercaptan, a type of gas emitted by fresh carcasses. Even other type of vultures lack this ability and the Turkey Vulture will often be followed by other species.

Turkey Vultures don’t seem to mind the company. They’re fairly social birds, preferring to roost in larger groups. Speaking of roosting, if you mess with  Turkey Vulture nest, they may barf on you to defend their young. Yes, barf. They also barf to feed their babies.

See! Herman’s kinda cute, right? Right?

Different vulture species depend on each other. Where other species will follow Turkey Vultures to food, sometimes the Turkey Vulture will be too weak to break the skin of certain animals. Fortunately, larger vultures such as condors or King Vultures are strong enough and these guys will just happen to be along for the ride. In this way, they work together.

I don’t know of anyone who will pick a vulture as their favorite bird. I mean, we use the word “vulture” in a negative sense to describe greedy people. They get a bad rap, but unfairly so. Vultures are a major part of nature’s cleanup crew, a necessary component of our ecosystem. The next time you see a vulture out and about, please consider how this guy takes care of a “dirty job” that no one else will do. After all, those dead animals aren’t gonna clean themselves.

Have I changed your mind about vultures? Maybe at least given you a bit a perspective? Let me know in the comments! And please, join me tomorrow for our discussion on the Harris’s Hawk!

Cornell Lab page for the Turkey Vulture

Audubon Society page for the Turkey Vulture

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