TURKEY VULTURE – (Cathartes aura)
The Turkey vulture is a New World widespread scavenger bird and its territory includes North America starting from southern Canada down to the tip of Southern America. The southern Canada and most of the USA except the south east are breeding areas only.
Turkey vultures are large birds at 80 cm (30 in.) long. The plumage is black-brown. The bill is white, short and hooked. There is little difference in the sexes in terms of color and size. The nostrils are pervious, i.e. wide open to allow a better sense of smell. The legs and feet are pinkish. Like other vultures, this species lacks a voice organ, so its capacity for emitting sounds if very limited.
The turkey vulture owes its English name to its similarity with the wild male turkey, i.e. a featherless red head and dark plumage. The name ‘vulture’ means ‘to tear’ in Latin, in reference to the way this bird feeds itself.
Turkey vultures soar effortlessly, taking advantage of thermals. In flight, they are easy to identify due to the two well-defined colors of their wings, black at the base and silvery for the flight feathers. They will spread their wings when perched and bask in the sun. They will defecate on their own legs to keep them cool.
This bird species has the rare ability (for a bird) to detect its food (carcasses) by smell, and it has a large olfactory bulb in the brain developed for that purpose. Some farmers fear due to an unproven belief that they kill young animals. However this bird only feeds on already dead animals. Another fear is that they spread diseases among farm animals, but this too has been demonstrated to be untrue. What is true is that they will follow black vultures, which DO kill animals sometimes.
Turkey vultures were severely impacted by DDT, but recovered following that pesticide ban. Because they eat killed animals, they can also get poisoned by the lead from some of the carcasses they feed on.
The turkey vulture does not breed on PEI and is considered as a ‘rare’ species, i.e. only a few birds have been observed in a century. For example, one was seen at Ebenezer on September 18, 2009.