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Turkey Vulture

Common Name: Turkey Vulture.

Scientific Name: Cathartes Aura.

What to look for?  Just like in the old cowboy movies, look for that ominous sight of several large, dark, long-winged creatures circling in the sky over Carillon Stonegate Pond. Turkey Vultures are large dark birds - bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors. The body feathers are black with a browner back. Turkey Vultures have long, broad wings with long "fingers" at their wingtips. They have black wing linings and silver-gray flight feathers. And they have long tails that extend past their toe tips in flight. Turkey Vultures have very small heads for their body size. And the head is naked or featherless and bright red head. They have pale bill and legs.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Turkey Vulture sightings will be random. When they do appear, you may see several flying high up in the sky circling on our ponds.

How big are they? The Turkey Vulture averages thirty (30) inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately six (6) feet. Adults weigh in at around seventy (70) ounces – over four (4) pounds.

What are their flight patterns? Turkey Vultures spend most of their time soaring in the sky. They soar with their dark, long wings slightly raised in a “V” and make wide, wobbly circles. Turkey Vultures ride thermals high in the sky, soaring with very few wingbeats. They may soar in small groups.

How else do they behave? On the ground, Turkey Vultures walk with an ungainly wobbly hop. Outside of the breeding season, they form roosts of dozens of birds. When Turkey Vultures court, pairs perform a "follow flight" display where one bird leads the other through twisting, turning, and flapping flights for a minute or so, and repeated over some three (3) hours. Sometimes in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, either warming up, cooling off, or drying off.

What is for dinner? Turkey Vultures eat carrion or dead animals, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey

Where do they take up residence? Turkey Vultures reside from the southern border of Canada, through much of the U.S., into Mexico and Central America, and as far south as parts of South America. Turkey Vultures can be found anywhere they can effectively find a carrion food supply. They are found in forested as well as open environments such as roadsides, suburbs, farm fields, countryside, and food sources such as landfills, trash heaps, and construction sites.

Where do they breed and nest? Turkey Vultures choose nest sites in sheltered areas, such as inside hollow trees or logs, in crevices in cliffs, under rocks, and in caves. However, there is little or no actual nest built - eggs laid on debris or on flat bottom of nest site. The Turkey Vulture has one brood each year. The female lays a up to three (3) eggs and incubates over the next five (5) weeks. The nestling period is approximately ten (10) weeks. They are capable of flight at that time.

Where do they migrate? The Turkey Vulture is a common migrant through Illinois and can be found through most of Illinois from mid-February to mid-November; some do overwinter in southern Illinois. Turkey Vultures in the northern United States migrate to the southern U.S. to as far as Mexico and Central America.

What is their conservation status? There is low conservation concern. Turkey Vultures increased in number across North America over the last five decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 28 million. Turkey Vultures were threatened by side-effects of the pesticide DDT, but today they are among the most common large carnivorous birds in North America. Turkey Vultures are protected federally by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and at the state level by the Illinois Wildlife Code.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Turkey Vultures lack the vocal organs to make proper songs. Most vocalizations are grunts, hisses, and barking sounds, used mainly for predator deterrence. Here is a link to the sounds of the Turkey Vulture.

Interesting Facts About the Turkey Vulture:

  • The word ‘vulture’ likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear.

  • The more pleasant sounding scientific name, Cathartes aura, means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”

  • The Turkey Vulture uses its sense of smell to locate carrion as the part of its brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds.

  • There are six subspecies of turkey vultures: three in North America and three in South and Central America.

  • As a defense mechanism, Turkey Vultures may vomit on a bird, animal, or human that gets too close - a powerful weapon

  • The oldest known Turkey Vulture lived over 23 years.

For more information on Turkey Vultures and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society, University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web, University of Minnesota Raptor Center, and the Illinois DNR. And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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