Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura
) are found throughout North and South America. They can be found from southern Canada to the tip of Cape Horn, and from the West Coast to the East Coast. They are sometimes incorrectly called buzzard
s, which is the English name for hawk
s of the genus buteo
Turkey vultures are large birds, with a wingspan of up to six feet (1.8 meters). Like other vultures, turkey vultures appear to have naked heads. Their heads are covered with down that is fine enough to clearly see the bright red skin underneath.
Like humans, turkey vultures are omnivorous. They prefer carrion when they can find it, the fresher the better. They also eat fish in drying-up ponds, insects, grass, leaves, pumpkin, and seeds. Their feet and their beaks are too weak to effectively kill other creatures. Their feet seem to have evolved to optimize walking and hopping rather than killing or grasping.
Turkey vultures have a remarkable ability to destroy the bacteria and viruses they ingest. The droppings of a turkey vulture and the dry pellets (boluses) of hair, bone, and vegetation they regurgitate are free of disease. Considering their sometimes foul diet, this is quite an accomplishment.
Most birds do not have a good sense of smell, but the turkey vulture is an exception. A turkey vulture can detect odors measured in parts per trillion (thousand billion). By comparison, a human can detect the odor of a skunk only at one part per billion. Turkey vultures use both their eyesight and their keen sense of smell to locate their food.
The turkey vulture flies gracefully. It rarely flaps its wings, but instead soars delicately on the air currents, moderating and directing its progress by minute adjustments in the angle of its wings.
One of the ways by which one can identify a turkey vulture is the way it holds its wings in flight. Turkey vultures soar with their wings held in a dihedral form, which in simple terms means that if you look at a flying turkey vulture head-on, its wings and body form a gentle "v" shape.
When cornered, a turkey vulture may play dead. It may also suddenly vomit on its foe, hoping to revolt its aggressor into leaving it alone.
Turkey vultures have no call or cry. They sometimes hiss or groan.