Angels of Death – Turkey Vulture

I am patiently waiting for a chance to see one of the Old World’s great scavengers of the air, such as the Griffon vulture, or perhaps even the mighty Lammergeier. But in the mean time it was the New World vultures of the United States that provided me with my first encounter with these avian angels of death. I discovered that it is a common sight to see the shadows of Turkey Vultures dancing across the great American highways.

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Turkey Vulture

The Turkey vulture is a relatively large bird with a wingspan of approximately 70 inches (1.7 meters) and a total length of up to 32 inches (81 cm). It appears black from a distance but when one gets close to them on the ground it can be seen that they are actually dark brown. The small, turkey style, featherless red head that gives the bird its name, completes its sinister apparel.

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‘T’ is for Turkey – the black T that is so useful in basic identification

The Turkey vulture is one of two species of New World vulture in North America, with the other being the Black Vulture. Identification is easiest when the birds are on the ground. The Black vulture has a black/grey head and darker plumage. In the air it is perhaps more challenging to tell the species apart, but I have a simple method. The Black vulture has black undersides to its wings with 6 large white primary feathers, or fingers that give an appearance of white wing tips. I look for the black ‘T’ of the Turkey vulture using the body and tops of the wings that form a ‘T’ shape, with the rest of the underwing being pale. The Turkey vulture also glides with its wings angled slightly upwards giving a ‘V’ shape. This helps keep the bird balanced in flight when riding the rising air currents. So look for the ‘T’ wings in a ‘V’ shape and there you have a Turkey Vulture!

A Black vulture stands by its prize
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Turkey Vultures use the UV rays of the sun to decontaminate feathers

There is very little that is pleasant about vultures. Bare headed devils that are never far from death. But is this raptor really an angel of death, or is it a little unfairly maligned? Turkey vultures feed primarily on carrion. They are also happy to clear up the waste left by human excess. The roadside is a valuable feeding ground for them. With a keen sense of smell, which is unusual in birds and missing from the Black vulture, the Turkey vulture helps clear the land of carcasses and decay. The bird has a unique nostril design, sensitive to decay down to Parts Per Billion (PPB) that allows it to detect a mouse corpse beneath leaf litter, under the forest canopy. They can smell a decay up to eight miles away when they are 1000 feet in the air.

If you’re going to spend your life eating rotten meat then you need to think about personal hygiene. These birds have some habits and adaptations that help keep them in tip-top condition:

  • An excellent immune system
  • A featherless head which helps it stay clean as it inserts into places that heads should not go.
  • A nostril cover plate prevents rotten meat lodging in those super-sensitive nostrils. They also pick their nose with a long hooked toe nail in order to keep it clear of rotten meat.
  • A grooming habit that has them spend time cleaning themselves and each other.
  • Perhaps my favourite, and the most spectacular, is the habit of sitting with back to the sun, allowing the UV rays to decontaminate those huge wings from any parasites or bacteria of decay.
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A committee of vultures in Upstate New York

I’ve encountered Turkey vultures in most areas of the US that I have visited. My first close encounter was in Upstate New York. I had only seen the vultures whirling above my head, until I spotted a small committee of them perched along a wall and fence bordering a reservoir. I sprang out of the car, grabbed my camera and was able to fire off a few shots.

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Turkey Vultures

My next significant vulture encounter was in Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Here I found vultures sat in the tree-tops sunning themselves, occasionally dropping away into a low glide, in search of salmon corpses left over from the spawning season, or the remains left over from a Black bear’s fishing trip. This was a wonderful opportunity to get close to these birds during take-off and landing which gave a true sense of the size of these great birds.

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A Turkey vulture comes in to land in a tree top

A little known fact about Turkey vultures is that they have been known to collide with airplanes. Between the years 1989 and 1992 US Air Force records show Turkey Vulture collisions with aircraft resulted in two human deaths, three airplane crashes, and a loss of more than 21 million dollars. Let’s not forget the poor vulture who was probably the one who was collided with.

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A Vancouver Island Turkey vulture suns its wings

This amazing bird with the super-power of smell carries out an essential role in nature. It is unfortunate that the creatures that carry out these grizzly task are often the creatures that we abhor. Turkey vultures are out there cleaning the land, reducing the spread of disease and distributing recycled nutrients. I’m always happy to see them wheeling high in the sky above, waiting for the next opportunity to clear our roadsides of the dead.

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  1. Great post, David! I see turkey vultures practically everywhere I go in the US, and they are indeed valuable animals. They definitely deserve respect.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for the valuable information you have shared. Great photos

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a face! I admire your ability to take such great air shots. We don’t have any kind of vultures in Australia, but I guess our wedgetail eagles do a similar job when they feast on road kills. I am yet to photograph them though. Great to see your return to blogging, David. Best wishes, Jane.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post, David! Love to learn about parts of nature we often overlook as not obviously “cute” or less aesthetically pleasing to us somehow. Wonderful how nature creates balance in all – these birds have such an important job. Excellent reminder that there is an intricate chain going on, and we’re both a part of it and a major impact upon it when we meddle without considering the whole.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the great comment, Lara! It is very easy to forget that we are the eco-system and that all parts of that system are connected with a very fine balance. It is also important to remember that as part of that system, not everything we do is bad, as we often believe. It just is!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Wonderfully said, David! Need to look at the whole and how it all interplays versus taking one piece out and making judgments on. Very analogous to much in life “) Great lessons – thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Love these guys, but I have to tell you, on a long, hot bicycle ride, when I am near the end of my rope, it is a bit disconcerting to see them circling above my head as I ride!

    Great write up, I learned a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really enjoyed reading about turkey vultures. Very well written blog post. Will continue to follow you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article as always, David! And happy to see some light shed on these much-maligned birds. They are amazingly adapted to their role in our world and a necessary part of our wild ecosystem. Vultures clean things up as you mentioned and actually halt the spread of disease. I love to watch them riding the thermals at incredible heights. On the ground, they are big and gawky. They like to eat one-at-a-time in a pretty strictly enforced hierarchy, they sometimes groom each other and are funny when they are parading around and posturing in the sun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Roberta! I love that you usually add a little extra to the conversation with some additional facts. I was surprised to find that hierarchy goes out the window when the Black vultures arrive as they are more aggressive. They are wonderful to watch riding the thermals. The way they rock in that “V” shape. Thanks again, and happy holidays to you and yours.

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  8. I enjoyed this informative and interesting post about the American vultures, David, and your photos were a pleasure.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Turkey Vultures are birds I have witnessed in the Midwest skies most of my life. I have always preferred to think of them as the avian ecological clean-up crew. Love to see them lazily circling on thermals!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow. Never heard of a turkey vulture and not sure if I’ve seen one. Will have to look closely next time I’m out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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