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  • The Turkey Vulture receives its common name from the resemblance of the adult’s red bald head and its dark plumage to that of the male Wild Turkey.

  • The Turkey Vulture’s scientific name is Cathartes aura which is Latin for “cleansing breeze.”

  • The primary defense of vultures is to regurgitate semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance that deters most predators from raiding a vulture nest.

  • Vultures play a very important role in our world by disposing of dead animals that would otherwise be a breeding ground for diseases.

  • Vultures are sometimes accused of carrying livestock diseases but the virus that causes hog cholera is destroyed in the vulture’s digestive tract.

  • Groups of perched vultures are called a wake because the way they hang their heads makes them look like they are mourning over something.

Vultures tend to be very misunderstood creatures. They are often thought of as lowly or foul creatures mostly because of their eating habits. Vultures are scavengers and they feed almost exclusively on carrion (dead animals). As a result, vultures are often associated with death and are thus thought of as grim and foreboding. However, many people do not see the importance of vultures as scavengers, and they are, in fact, very beneficial.

There are three species of vultures in North America; the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the California condor. The two most common species are the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture. Of these vultures, the Turkey Vulture has the largest range that spans from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. The Black Vulture ranges from southeastern United States to Central Chile and Uruguay.

Vultures are fairly large birds. Turkey Vultures have a wingspan that reaches up to 72 inches (6 feet) and Black Vultures have a wingspan that reaches up to 66 inches (5 feet 6 inches).

Vultures are most commonly found in relatively open areas which provide nearby woods for nesting. Vultures are gregarious and tend to roost in large groups. Black Vultures tend to forage in groups whereas Turkey Vultures break away from the group to forage independently during the day.

Turkey Vultures find their food using their keen eyesight and sense of smell. They fly low enough to detect the gases that are produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. Their keen sense of smell is a trait that is very uncommon to the avian world. This ability allows Turkey Vultures to search for carrion that are below the forest canopy. They prefer to feed on animals that are recently dead, and tend to avoid carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction (stage of decomposition where proteins in the body are broken down by bacteria, resulting in the release of foul-smelling gases).

Black Vultures, who lack the ability to smell carrion, follow the Turkey Vulture to carcasses. The Black Vulture will occasionally feed on livestock or deer and is the only species of New World vulture that feeds on cattle and is thus often considered a threat by cattle ranchers. Turkey Vultures do not kill live animals but will mix with flocks of Black Vultures and will scavenge on what the Black Vultures leave behind. As a result, Turkey Vultures are often falsely accused of killing livestock when, in fact, they are merely foraging on what Black Vultures may have left behind.

Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures may seem similar in appearance from a distance if the coloration of their heads cannot be seen. But, there are some distinct differences that some people do not know to look for. For instance, while soaring, the Turkey Vulture holds its wings in a shallow V-shape, or dihedral, and often tips from side to side, frequently causing the gray flight feathers to appear silvery as they catch the light. The Black Vulture holds its wings horizontally while soaring and the undersides of the tips of its wings are white.

The Turkey Vulture exhibits an example of static soaring flight in that it flaps its wings very infrequently and takes advantage of rising thermals to stay soaring, whereas the Black Vulture exhibits short periods of flapping its wings followed by periods of gliding. Turkey Vultures also have a long tail whereas the tails of Black Vultures are short and square and barely reach past the edges of their wings.

When Black Vultures nest, they usually lay their eggs on the ground in a wooded area, a hollow log, or some other cavity, seldom more than 10 feet off of the ground. Turkey Vultures generally lay their eggs in a protected location such as a cliff, a cave, a rock crevice, a burrow, inside a hollow tree, or a thicket. Both vultures typically have a clutch size of two eggs. Turkey Vulture eggs are cream-colored, with lavender spots around the larger end. Black Vulture eggs are gray-green, bluish, or white and is variably blotched or spotted with lavender or pale brown around the larger end. For both vultures, the young generally hatch after about 30-40 days of incubation. Also, both Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture young typically fledge after about 10-11 weeks.

Turkey Vultures are sometimes accused of carrying anthrax or hog cholera, both livestock diseases, on its feet or bill by cattle ranchers and therefore are often perceived as a threat. However, the virus that causes hog cholera is destroyed when it passes through the Turkey Vulture’s digestive tract.

Vultures are usually not very well thought of because of their eating habits, but what many people do not realize is that vultures play a very important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion that would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease. Just think of what it would be like without vultures to dispose of dead animal carcasses. All of the animals that are killed by cars would just remain on the side of the road for weeks until they either decomposed completely or are disposed of by someone. The truth is, vultures make our world a much cleaner place and should be appreciated for doing so.

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