“What is that big bird circling high up in the sky?” This is a frequently asked question on bird watching walks. Another person comments, “It kind of looks like the size of an eagle, but its head is red with no feathers and is much smaller and its wings are in a V shape unlike an eagle’s horizontal wings. What is it?” The answer, “It’s a turkey vulture!”
Many people, when they hear the word vulture, think of death, dying, and scavenging. The word vulture comes from the Latin word, vultur, which means to pluck or tear, and is a reference to the feeding habits of this group of birds. The turkey vulture belongs to the new world vultures in the family, Cathartidae, referring to the scavenging nature of vultures which perform the “cleansing of the surroundings.” In fact, vultures are immensely important for removing potentially dangerous, bacteria-ridden dead carcasses from the environment. They provide a valuable service in the scheme of things and they are protected by Federal law.
According to the 2006 Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin, turkey vultures were rare to uncommon in the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A population increase was noted in the late 1940s and has continued until the present time with more and more being seen, especially in northern Wisconsin according to my observations and those of others. Some believe the increase in population in our state was related to the newly created interstate highway system and other roads that began providing a reliable roadkill food source for the birds starting in the late 1950s.
Even though the turkey vulture is thought to be the least handsome of our Wisconsin birds, it is an interesting and useful seasonal member of our bird community. I have observed them frequently soaring over our NEC property during migration and during nesting and have become fascinated by them, so here are some quick, fascinating facts that might hook you into learning more about them.
Our Wisconsin turkey vultures are long distance migrants that breed and nest throughout Wisconsin, but winter in Central and South America. They have immensely broad, six-foot-long wings with widely spaced primary feathers that allow them to glide and turn for long periods on wind currents and thermals (rising air) without flapping their wings, saving them energy.
The turkey vulture finds dead animals using its keen eyesight and sense of smell, unlike most birds who have no or a poor sense of smell. Vultures are believed to be able to spot carcasses from the air over a mile away and some will circle above a carcass as a signal to other vultures of a food find. This is often followed by a feeding frenzy on the ground where it becomes all about the beaks and tongues. Sometimes they will quietly descend on a carcass to enjoy it by themselves.
The turkey vulture has a strong beak and featherless neck and head just like a wild turkey. The vulture’s bare head is thought to be an adaptation to prevent germs and bacteria from causing infections or sickness that could be acquired when sticking its head into putrid carcasses. The large powerful bill rips holes in the carcass while the rasp like tongue helps grasp and move chunks of meat into the mouth. All in all, the turkey vulture is well-suited for finding and feeding on dead animals we call carrion. Scientists estimate that one vulture can consume about 111 pounds of carrion in one year.
Their feet, on the other foot, are much weaker than raptors like owls, eagles, and hawks and are designed more for walking, running, hopping, and perching than they are for killing and grasping prey like raptors do. It wasn’t until 1994 that scientists using DNA testing found out that new world vultures including turkey vultures are more closely related to storks than to raptors. To answer a question we often get, turkey vultures are not related to turkeys. The bald red head, beautiful silver and black feather coloration, and wingspread resemble that of wild turkeys—thus the name turkey vulture.
Turkey vultures don’t have a call or song but will do some hissing when disturbed. Also, when disturbed, especially around a nest or roosting area, they will send vomit toward the cause of the disturbance to scare it away. It works for me!
Turkey vultures mate for life, but will take another mate, if one is lost or dies. Their nesting habitats leave something to be desired. They really don’t make a normal nest but will lay one or two eggs, rarely three right on the ground hidden under some cover, or in rock crevices, hollow logs, old buildings, or sometimes even in caves. The young birds can be distinguished from the adults by their gray head, bill, and legs compared to the adult’s red head, white bill, and reddish legs. The young birds don’t get their adult coloration and plumage until they are one to two years old. Adults can live in the wild for about 16 years, but longer in captivity. I know of one at The Raptor Center (TRC) at the University of Minnesota who is 46 years old and whose name is Nero.
With proper permitting, TRC acquired Nero as a nestling for scientific study. He acted as a model for developing wing tags, color markers, and radio transmitter mounts. This work helped pave the way for the use of similar equipment on the critically endangered vulture species, the California condor.
We are fortunate to know a lot more about Wisconsin turkey vultures due to the decades long work of two dedicated researchers, Lisa Hartman and Mike Mossman. They focused their research on the Baraboo Range including the Devil’s Lake bluffs which has ideal nesting habitat. They have found many turkey vulture nests located in boulder fields and rock outcrops within the Range forests. The surrounding agricultural lands and road systems provide ideal foraging areas for the vultures. To find out more about their work, be sure to see this seven and one-half minute video produced by PBS WISCONSIN: https://www.pbs.org/video/in-wisconsin-turkey-vultures/
In late September and early October turkey vultures often gather at Devil’s Lake State Park in preparation for migrating south for the winter. It is an ornithological event you won’t want to miss because it is the largest concentration of turkey vultures in the Midwest. At times the sky over the lake can be filled with them as seen in this two-minute YouTube video: https://youtu.be/rIPHd6ICKNA
Turkey vultures were once threatened by the side-effects of DDT, but since that was banned in 1972, they are doing quite well today. Now they are one of the most common large carnivorous birds in North America, but they are still threatened by death from lead shot that ends up in carcasses or gut piles left by hunters. Other threats include trapping and killing due to erroneous fears that they spread disease. Far from it, vultures reduce the spread of disease and play a critical role in cleaning up dead animals. Without a question, they are nature’s cleaner uppers!