Photo of the Day #71: Turkey Vulture


The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a creature that I am at least somewhat familiar with; I see them every day on my drive to work. Whether they're just circling overhead or picking on a deer carcass, turkey vultures don't seem to have any problem inhabiting the landscape with people and are probably among the creatures (like the white-tailed deer, coyote, and grey squirrel) that will survive the increasing suburban sprawl of this state, if not benefit from it. The individual pictured above, however, was photographed while I was hiking this past fall at Bear Mountain State Park in New York, the thermal it was riding coming close enough to the rock I was standing on to let me get a closer shot than normally is possible. Lacking a syrinx, this bird makes little noise and (as the name suggests) it feeds primarily on carrion, so while it might not be the kind of bird you want visiting your backyard (I like them, but I know some are put off but its appearance and carrion-eating habits) it is still an impressive animal.


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while it might not be the kind of bird you want visiting your backyard

No, no ... that's like saying, "I don't like to see those garbage collectors around here." :-)

Why would it be in your backyard if not to perform a Useful Service??

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 18 Dec 2007 #permalink

Scott; I actually like Turkey Vultures and wouldn't mind if one dropped in. Other people, though, are a little put off by its featherless head and carrion-eating habits, so I was referring more to aesthetics (Turkey Vulture vs. an Eastern Goldfinch, say) than to the important ecological "services" it provides.

I love seeing the Turkey Vultures around here in semi-rural central New Jersey. Thanksgiving morning I saw three perched on the roof of a barn behind my house.

This past winter I passed a dead deer on my way home from work. Unlike most roadkill it had managed to get well into the field alongside the road before dying, so the road cleanup crew didn't remove it.

A week later I drove by and saw six vultures clustered around the now disemboweled carcass. With one bird even crawling into the cavity.

Just like the African savanna!

Yay for cathartids. I remember going to some small wildlife preserve with captive turkey vultures and they were the only animals exhibited (including foxes, raccoons) that had any toys out. Apparently they like shredding up bluejeans and kicking around balls. I'll have to look into this unexpected playfulness. If more people saw them that way, it would be hard to still be put off.

There was a book called Wildlife Survivors by John Quinn that discussed the survival of vultures. They are limited due to their need for a secluded/rural place to lay eggs, but so far they are coping very well.

Turkey "condor" eh? It is confusing to have two (or more?) unrelated lineages of "vultures", and especially confusing is that the Andean condor is Vultur gryphus. Even more confusing is that "New World" vultures = Cathartidae = Vulturidae. Birds, what a mess.

Another thing Horner is wrong about: Turkey vultures have a horrible sense of smell, just like almost every other bird on the planet. They have excellent VISION, though, and they soar high enough that their vision cone sweeps a wide swath. They will also go after small vertebrates without hesitation. NO ANIMAL ON THE PLANET IS AN EXCLUSIVELY SCAVENGING ANIMAL. I assume this went to extinct organisms too.

Like, oh, I don't know, Tyrannosaurus rex.

I think you've just stepped in the fetid pile of offal that is the debate about Cathartes' olfactory abilities (or relative lack thereof). Seems like just about everyone with a bucket of a pig entrails and a caged Turkey Condor has tried doing "experiments" to test this question, including Audubon and Darwin (well I think he may have been playing with Vultur?).

To my knowledge, the results have been basically equivocal, and it is still an open question to some degree. Anatomically Cathartes has a pretty well developed olfactory system, certainly so for a bird and I don't think that their sense of smell is "horrible" (though I also don't buy tales of "smelling one drop of blood from 10 miles away" and such nonsense that you hear at nature centers and zoos sometimes). There have even been claims that Cathartes sees or hears flies buzzing around carcasses and is attracted to those! While they certainly rely heavily on vision for foraging, I don't think we can rule out smell least not yet.

Anyone want to loan me a pickup so I can collect some roadkill and head over to the Raptor Center for an afternoon?

There are obligate scavengers among extant animals.
Sarcophagid and Calliphorid flies are obligate scavengers, I think some of the old world vultures are very nearly obligate scavengers though I'm sure they wouldn't hesitate to consume incapacitated but still living prey.

I truly fail to comprehend how worked up everyone gets over the scavenger Tyro thing...surely, she ate basically whatever she get her mouth around. Why doesn't everyone get frantic about what the eff Hescheleria was eating? I know, I know dead horses and what not...

Sorry to be such a git Zach! :)

Gyps is, at least, a highly specialized scavenger and gets the overwhelming bulk of its calories on the rot.

But, I really think it's a false dichotomy. Name an extant vertebrate predator that never takes a little taste of delicious carrion now and then. I don't know, call me a trendy gradist!