Riding the Currents of the Turkey Vulture

We’ve all seen them at one time or another: enormous dark birds that effortlessly glide in the sky like a kite on thermal air currents in ever-widening circles, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. At times we might even mistake them for eagles or ospreys from a distance. The turkey vulture, also known as a turkey buzzard, is the most widespread of several species of vultures that inhabit the Americas. So named because its bright red head and dark plumage resemble those of a wild tom turkey, the turkey vulture is a permanent resident in the southern United States and a summertime visitor to the north, where it nests and reproduces.

Ranging from southern Canada to southernmost South America, the turkey vulture is the most accomplished of winged scavengers, feeding almost entirely on carrion. Its excellent eyesight and acute sense of smell enable the turkey buzzard to detect the acrid aroma of decaying dead animals in order to accurately zero in on their location. With a wingspan that stretches from five to six feet, it can soar for hours in search of a carcass on which to feed only occasionally flapping its wings in order to stay aloft.

A closer look at the turkey vulture reveals that it is anything but attractive. Its grotesque elongated bald red face and its big black beady eyes give it an appearance that is far from cute. Its pale and sharply-hooked bill is used to tear through hides and into flesh. Even though they appear to be black in color from a distance, which is what often leads to their misidentification, turkey vultures are actually dark brown with a lighter brown or gray coloration on their undersides and flight feathers.

Vultures are common in countryside settings and even along highways where they search for roadkills. They roost in community groups and often can be seen with wings outstretched for long periods of time to warm or dry in the sun. Before the 1960s, vulture sightings in the Finger Lakes Region were rare but since the use of toxic pesticides has been discontinued, their numbers have been increasing significantly.

Mistaking a vulture for an eagle or osprey from a distance is easy but there is a way to tell the difference. In flight, the buzzard holds its wings in a shallow V-shaped position when seen from the front or back and it teeters in the air from side to side. Eagles and other raptors hold their wings straight and glide along in a much straighter flight pattern.


adamski_profile_Apr21Story and photo by John Adamski