Turkey vultures

Ever since I was a kid, watching Westerns on TV with my Dad, buzzards (as he called them) were a key character in many stories. A scene shows buzzards circling above a parched, desolate landscape. Will the rescue party find the lost travelers in time, or is it already too late?

TurkeyVulture1Little did I know then that most of what I had heard about buzzards was false. As an adult in Monterey, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter buzzards — turkey vultures — regularly on beach walks. I’ve been able to get to know them much better.

Here are a few discoveries starting with the gross stuff.

TurkeyVulture2Turkey vultures are scavengers. They typically eat what’s dead and decaying (not what’s dying) and they like their carrion fresh (not dead too long). They scavenge on whatever meat is available and edible. On my local beach I’ve watched them eat mostly marine mammals, but also gulls and cormorants, and an ocean sunfish.

They have a very acute sense of smell. While flying, either soaring low near the ground or riding thermals for an upper advantage, they’re attracted to the scent of death (chemical compounds putrescine and cadaverine — great names) emitted as animal proteins break down. It’s amazing to me that vultures can pick up the scent of decay while in flight and from great heights. The featherless head and legs help keep them clean (feathers would get pretty sticky mucking around in a meal). They’re tough immune system is able to handle the putrid meat and load of bacteria.

They’re gregarious birds and will cue in on others’ behavior — hence a group in flight, or feeding on a carcass, or roosting in trees, or migrating. However, their manners aren’t great. A bird feeding on a carcass doesn’t usually share and sometimes chases off others. Turkey vultures will defecate liquid shit on their legs to cool off if it’s too hot, and they will regurgitate a gooey meal on you (or a predator) if frightened, (but they usually just walk away when I get too close). Not the best beach party guests.

But they are gorgeous (if you ignore the manners, bald red head and scrawny legs).
TVFeathersTurkey vultures are raptors — related to the other New World vultures, black vulture and California condor, as well as osprey, hawks and eagles. Look closely and you’ll see the feathers are beautiful, like those of their better-liked relatives. And while soaring over the beach and over my head, they’re really elegant.

The melodic scientific name is Cathartes aura, which some translate from the Latin as “purifying air.”

Do you know what a group of vultures is called? I knew that turkey vultures circling on thermals is referred to as a kettle (think stirring a pot of boiling water). I learned that a group is called a venue (maybe for a meeting or gathering place), volt (could be related to the turning gait of a horse), or committee (can you imagine why?). And a group of perched vultures is called a wake!

So the next time you see a turkey vulture, take a moment to watch this incredible bird in action, and be thankful you’re not ankle-deep in dead carcasses. Turkey vultures are great at beach cleanups.


P.S. According to the IUCN Red List, the turkey vulture conservation status is “least concern” due to its current extensive range (North America to South America) and stable populations. The article by Connor below suggests that people and climate change benefit turkey vultures.

Sources & Resources
Connor, J. (2011, Apr. 15). Vultures riding north. All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
Cathartes aura. From Wikipedia: List of Latin phrases in A Canticle for Leibowitz. 
Putrescine and cadaverine. Royal Society of Chemistry website.
Turkey Vulture. Accessed at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura): A Fascinating Bird. Audubon California Kern River Preserve website.
Turkey Vulture Society website, which doesn’t appear very active, but does include answers to frequently asked questions.