By Russ Chappell
Turkey vultures, also called turkey buzzards, are North American scavengers that clean up the countryside one bite at a time!
Often visible along roadways or soaring over the countryside, their super-sensitive sense of smell aids them in locating fresh carcasses. With wingspans as great as six feet, they can be misidentified as large raptors. However, their in-flight “V” shaped wing formation makes them easy to identify. They hang around open farmland and landfills, clumsily hopping along the ground, or occasionally standing erect with wings spread in the sunlight to warm up, cool down or dry off. They roost in trees, on rocks, and other high, secluded spots at night.
Rarely attacking live prey, they prefer deceased mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and will often wait for carcasses to soften in order to pierce the skin more easily. Several may gather at a carcass, but usually only one feeds at a time, chasing the others off and making them wait their turn. Skillful foragers, they consume the softest bits first, and their immune systems protect them from botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella. However, they are susceptible to pesticides and lead poisoning.
To form a nest, turkey vultures scrape out a spot in the soil or leaf litter, pull aside obstacles, or arrange scraps of vegetation or rotting wood. There is one brood yearly, consisting of one to three beige-white eggs, tinged with gray, blue, or green, spotted with purple to brown, and about three inches in length. Incubation is 28 to 40 days. Chicks are born with down, often blind and defenseless, yet able to leave the nest in about 60 to 84 days.
Turkey vultures are increasing in numbers across North America and Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 18 million, with the species rated as 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Big, bald and always entertaining, whether in flight or on the ground, this is an exciting species to add to your “big list” for 2019.
The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check them out online at PrescottAudubon.Org.
IMAGES: “Turkey Vulture” By Prescott College Professor Walt Anderson.