In praise of Turkey Vultures

Remember that old Rodney Dangerfield line:  “I don’t get no respect?” The same could be said about Turkey Vultures, one of our most common Bay Area birds. So when we saw this post by a TV fan on the 10000 Birds blog, we had to share it with you. Taking a new look at a familiar bird seemed like a good way to start 2013.


By Larry Jordan

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is probably one of the most misunderstood birds in North America.

Some people think they are ugly, but not I.

Turkey Vulture


Their odd looks serve very important purposes. The adult Turkey Vulture’s head and distal neck is reddish bare skin with blackish bristles, which not only helps keep their heads clean when partaking of a carrion meal, but they also use that featherless head to help regulate body temperature.

Turkey Vulture


They can tuck their bare heads into their feather-collared necks to help keep warm, and when they are heat-stressed they will increase blood flow to the head, neck and legs, which dissipates heat by evaporative cooling.

Of course they also help regulate their body temperature using their famous spread-winged postures. This is the “extended spread-wing posture”

Turkey Vulture


usually used to warm up in the morning sun or dry the wings, but sometimes it seems, just for fun.

Then there is the “delta wing posture” when Turkey Vultures face the sun and often preen.

Turkey Vulture


Turkey Vultures are known for eating carrion but what some people don’t realize is that, unlike most birds, they have an excellent sense of smell. Because of their extra olfactory powers, many other carrion-eating birds like hawks, eagles and other vultures follow Turkey Vultures to kills.

Turkey Vulture


This juvenile bird can be identified by its gray head and black-tipped beak.

Turkey Vulture


Here you can see the juvenile and adult on the same perch, the juvie acting submissive.

Turkey Vultures


A little bit later the juvenile gets comfortable, probably with a full crop.

Turkey Vulture


At another carcass, weeks earlier, there were several vultures attending a roadside kill…

Turkey Vultures


Can you imagine how many rotting animals we would have on the roadsides if we didn’t have vultures cleaning them up for us? I think Turkey Vultures deserve a lot more respect from us humans and especially birders.

How many times have you been birding when someone thought they spotted a hawk, eagle or other raptor and then acted disappointed when they discovered it was “only a Turkey Vulture.” Come on folks, lets give TVs a fair shake here. They are a very important part of our ecology.

Maybe this video of a vortex of vultures I shot during their fall migration will give you a more positive view of these incredible birds:   250 Turkey Vultures in Flight


Larry Jordan was introduced to birding after moving to northern California where he was overwhelmed by the local wildlife, forcing him to buy his first field guide just to be able to identify all the species visiting his yard.  Larry wanted to share his passion for birds and conservation and hatched The Birder’s Report in September of 2007.  He is a BirdLife Species Champion and contributes to several other conservation efforts, being the webmaster for Wintu Audubon Society and most recently, the habitat manager for the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network.

10000 Birds is a blog about international birding, wildlife and conservation. Its home page says, “‘There are approximately 10,000 bird species on this beautiful planet. Welcome to 10,000 Birds, where, between us, we expect to eventually see every single one. Expect plenty of commentary on natural history, science, politics, conservation, travel, and blogging along the way.”