Blogs > 2018 > August > August 29 2018

Turkey Vulture Fun Facts

Cathartes aura

The new world turkey vulture is found throughout all north and south America. They have an amazing wingspan of around six feet and can weigh up to five pounds. These beautiful birds of prey can live up to 35 years in the wild.

The turkey vulture feeds primarily on a wide variety of carrion which plays an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.

As of 2009, the global population of the turkey vulture was 4,500,000.

Groups of vultures spiraling upward to gain altitude are called kettles. When they are eating as a group, we call that a wake. When they roost together, they are called committees. They form communal roosts (ranging in size from a few to several thousand birds) which facilitate group foraging and social interactions. If you ever notice the roost in a committee, the one at the top is probably the matriarch/patriarch. 

Turkey vultures are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance called the horaltic pose. This pose is believed to serve multiple functions.

  • drying the wings
  • warming the body
  • baking off bacteria using the UV rays from the sun

The turkey vulture lowers its body temperature at night by about 6 degrees, becoming slightly hypothermic.

Nesting

There is no nest structure. The female turkey vulture generally lays 1 to 3 eggs directly on the ground in caves, crevices, mammal burrows, hollow logs, under fallen trees or in abandoned buildings. The eggs are creamy-white with dark blotches around larger end. Both parents incubate and the young hatch after approximately 30 to 40 days.

Gross Facts

Turkey vultures often defecate (poop) on their own legs using the evaporation of water in the feces (poop) and/or urine (pee) to cool themselves. This process scientists call urohydrosis. It cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi (another science word for legs) and feet.  So, if you ever get close enough to see white streaks on their legs, you can dazzle your friends by explaining to them that it is the uric acid from peeing and pooping on themselves. AND, since the turkey vultures' digestive juices kill bacteria like nobody's business, (which is why they don't get sick from eating rotten meat) defecating on their legs might even work as an antiseptic wash.

Their method of self-defense is to vomit their food. They can projectile vomit their food up to 10 feet! So, if you scare or harass a turkey vulture, prepare to be showered in the worst smelling vomit you have ever experienced. Even the vulture babies will vomit on other animals.  Although these behaviors might be disgusting to people, they serve turkey vultures well. Vulture vomit is a very effective predator repellent.

Interesting Facts

The turkey vultures’ stomach enzymes are often compared to battery acid and they can digest most all bacteria’s, even anthrax. Vultures have keen eyesight. It is believed that they are able to spot a three-food carcass from four miles away on the open plains. They can detect odor in the air at even a few parts per billion, some say even a trillion!

Having 4 to 5 types of single cone photoreceptors, complete with sensitivity to UV light (greater than humans who have 3 cones and lack the UV sensitivity).

Turkey vultures track plumes of odors from decaying animals while gliding high up in the air columns known as heat thermals and hone in on it by flying in circles. The university of South Bohemia, Czech Republic did a study based on a hypothesis that turkey vultures see these rising thermals as flight paths like humans see sidewalks as foot paths.

Both adults feed the chicks by regurgitating and will care for them for 10 to 11 weeks. The parents do not mate for life. Courtship happens in early spring through an Arial courtship in flight.

by Michiael Cross

 
2018 - Shasta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, Inc. (SWRR)
PO Box 1173 Anderson, CA 96007-1173
530 365-WILD (365-9453)

- Header photo by Jeff Carson -