Turkey Vulture photo by Brian Lanker

Turkey Vulture

This is a large, black to blackish-brown bird with a bare head and neck. Sexes are similar in size and plumage. Its beak is sturdy and pale, with large, oval, perforate nostrils; eyes are gray-brown. The long, slim, rounded tail extends more than half its length beyond folded wings when the bird is perched. The naked skin of the head and neck is black in young vultures, fades first to gray as they mature, then turns red, becoming wrinkled and warty as they reach adulthood. Although legs and feet are flesh-colored to deep red, they may appear pale due to this bird's habit of defecating on its legs to regulate body temperature in the heat.  [Courtesy of Brian Lanker] This vulture glides and soars with its wings in a tilting, flattened v-shape, circling up on thermal air currents, seeking food with its acute sense of smell. The underside of the wings show a pale, silvery lining in flight. Although it resembles a hawk when seen in the air, this bird is not a raptor. Turkey Vultures are more closely related to storks than to true vultures, like those of the Old World. The weak beak and claws of this species are not those of a predator, but of a carrion eater.


Meet our resident Turkey Vultures:

Kali, a female based on size, was found as one of two eggs in a nest at a logging site. Her parents had apparently abandoned the nest due to the logging disturbance. The eggs were incubated and after they hatched 30 days later, they were turned over to a rehabilitator. Every precaution was taken to keep her from imprinting on humans: residing with a sibling and in sight of an adult bird 24/7, fed by humans in 'ghost' costumes, and the adult vulture eating in front of the babies. Yet, on release, even with her sibling and wild vultures present, she kept coming down to humans, including children. Turkey Vultures, as scavengers, are intelligent and curious and Kali is no exception. Kali joined the Education Team in November 2003. 

Adoptive "Parents" of Kali:
Diana Little  •   Jennifer Barker and Joseph Morris •  Diane Simmons  •  The Voth Family    
Ninkasi Brewing Company  •  Laura & Jimmy Jewell  •  Jenny Buckley  •  Joyce Trawle
Sara Parker & Tommy Schreiner  •  Daniel & Casey Voloshin

Lethe hatched in 2000 and was raised at a wildlife rehabilitation center in California. Despite precautions to keep him from imprinting on humans, he became highly socialized and upon release at a state park, kept coming down to people (particularly women) to play with their shoelaces! Even after a return to captivity and several months in isolation from people in a large flight cage with other vultures, he preferred human companionship. Turkey Vultures, as scavengers, are intelligent and curious and Lethe is no exception. He joined the Education Team in April 2001. 

Adoptive "Parents" of Lethe:
Joseph Morris & Jennifer Barker  •  Diane Simmons  •  Jessica & Justin Rondema  •  Diana Little 
Burko Zaninovich & Family  •  The Thorn Family  •  Ann Pool  •  Jenny Buckley  •  Noel Dietz   
Christie Nelson  •  Kelsie Flescher  •   Michael Foster & Sarah Graves  •  Art & Debby Hertz
Marian Gallerani   •   Avenue Beauty   •  In Memory of our Beloved Noah Reece 2006-2018
Janet Pollack


Scientific Name

Cathartes aura


Length: 25 - 32"

Wing Span: 68 - 72"

Weight: 3 - 4 lb. 


Federally protected. 


Found in plains, farmland, deserts, and forests: wherever open foraging areas exist near trees for roosting. Ridges and hillsides are preferred in the northern part of its range, where uplands create rising air currents for soaring. Once widespread on the Great Plains in the time of the buffalo herds, this adaptable vulture now circles over roads and garbage dumps in search of meals. May establish large, communal roosts near reliable sources of food and water.


Carrion, which they find primarily by smell, but also by sight. Small carcasses are preferred, since their weak claws and bill cannot rip open thick hides of larger animals. These birds will wait for mammalian predators to open a larger carcass, or wait for the meat to decay so they can pull it apart. 


Although usually silent, this bird has a number of vocalizations. These range from a short, sharp, chicken-liketschuck..tschuck..tschuck to various whines, growls, and croaks. Turkey Vultures will hiss and rattle when disturbed at a nest site; when vultures are cornered, this hissing warning may be followed by the wonderful defense strategy of vomiting up carrion. 


Turkey Vultures lay their eggs on the ground in dense vegetation, in tree hollows, on rock outcrops, even on cave floors: wherever they can find a dark, protected area away from human disturbance. No nest is constructed, and the isolated sites chosen are widely spaced from other nesting pairs.

Most Common Problems

No longer legally persecuted in the US except at some large roosts as anuisance, common causes of injury to this species include being hit by cars while feeding on carrion, ingestion of lead from eating animals that have been shot, tangling in wire, gunshot, and electrocution.

Range Map

This is the most widely distributed vulture in the western hemisphere. Its breeding range extends throughout North America from southern Canada down to Mexico. In winter it retreats south to the latitude of Northern California, with part of the population migrating to Central and South America. The Turkey Vulture expanded its range northward between the 1920s and 1950s, in response to a warming climate and an increase in road kill as a food source during this era of booming road construction.



Special Thanks for range maps:

Dan Gleason
BGleason Design & Illustration
Commercial & Scientific Illustration, Graphic Design
CraneDance Communications
Book Production/Design