Turkey Vultures – The ‘cool emo kids’ of the bird world

Turkey Vultures – The ‘cool emo kids’ of the bird world


I think Turkey Vultures are just plain awesome.

They get a bad rap — they’re haunting to look at and they have some truly gross habits — but they actually perform a much-needed service. They clear out the dead and reduce the spread of disease. In some ways they rather remind me of images of “cool emo kids” — or even Uncle Fester in the “Addams Family” with their huge, hulking black bodies and bald heads.

On a juvenile Turkey Vulture that bald head is black but turns red as the bird matures; and the head is naked for a reason. The vulture feeds by sticking its face into the carcasses of dead animals. If the head was feathered, it would regularly be matted with gore and festering with bacteria — which wouldn’t make for a very healthy vulture. The featherless head is easy to clean up after feeding.

Turkey Vultures also have an extraordinary immune system which allows them to eat prey infected with salmonella or cholera without becoming infected. They’re even believed to have some immunity to anthrax!

Turkey Vultures seek out their meals by scent, not by sight. When you see them circling over something (in a winding formation known as a “kettle”) they’re zeroing in on the smell of blood and the ethyl mercaptan gas that’s produced by decaying bodies. In fact, the part of the brain that houses the olfactory sense is actually larger and more developed in Turkey Vultures than in any other type of bird.

You’ll note, too, that there is no solid septum between the Turkey’s Vulture’s nostrils; you can see right through its ivory-colored beak. This “perforated” structure enhances the Turkey Vulture’s sense of smell. Old World vultures like the Indian White Backed Vulture don’t have that perforation. Another difference between our New World Turkey Vultures and the Old World Vultures is that their DNA suggests they are more closely related to ancient storks than to ancient hawks like their Old World counterparts.

EP-150409955.jpg&maxh=400&maxw=667Because their feet aren’t particularly powerful or made with razor-sharp talons like hawks, Turkey Vultures are the only scavengers that don’t generally kill their own prey. Instead, they seek out prey that is already dead or dying.

But even vultures have their limits. They seldom eat anything that has completely putrefied. Once it’s found a meal that looks interesting, the Turkey Vulture will seek out the tenderest bits first, usually through some natural opening in the carcass, slicing in with a sharp beak that it can wield with the precision of a surgeon. Some reports state that Turkey Vultures can deftly remove the scent glands from skunks without getting “bombed.”

Their digestive system is really remarkable. When they upchuck pellets or defecate, the droppings are actually bacteria-free! And that’s a good thing for the vultures — because they have the habit of defecating on their legs and feet in the hot summer months to help cool themselves off. There’s actually a scientific word for that: “urohydrosis.” Another yucky habit of the vultures: they sometimes vomit on intruders.

But not everything about the vulture is gross or creepy: their stances and courtship rituals are actually quite interesting. To warm themselves up in the early morning hours, they often stand with their wings outstretched and their backs facing the sun.

If you see the vultures gathered on the ground in a circle and hopping around, you’re most likely witnessing a courtship ritual. The breeding season for these birds starts in March and goes through June, so we’re right in the middle of it now. These vultures don’t have voice boxes, so the only sounds you’ll hear them make are hisses or breathy grunts.

Turkey Vultures are the most common and abundant vulture in the country, so they’re easy to find. The next time you come across some of them, help us celebrate these awesome birds by taking a few photos and sending them off to Tuleyome to post to our Facebook page!

via Tuleyome Tales: Turkey Vultures – The ‘cool emo kids’ of the bird world.