The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is probably one of the most misunderstood birds in North America. Some people think they are ugly, but not I (click on photos for full sized images).
Their odd looks serve very important purposes. The adult Turkey Vulture’s head and distal neck is reddish bare skin with blackish bristles, which not only helps keep their heads clean when partaking of a carrion meal, they use that featherless head to help regulate body temperature.
They can tuck their bare heads into their feather collared necks to help keep warm and when they are heat stressed they will increase blood flow to the head, neck and legs which dissipates heat by evaporative cooling1.
Of course they also help regulate their body temperature using their famous spread-winged postures. This is the “extended spread-wing posture”
usually used to warm up in the morning sun or dry the wings, but sometimes it seems, just for fun.
Then there is the “delta wing posture” when Turkey Vultures face the sun and often preen.
Turkey Vultures are known for eating carrion but what some people don’t realize is that, unlike most birds, they have an excellent sense of smell. Because of their extra olfactory powers, many other carrion eating birds like hawks eagles and other vultures follow Turkey Vultures to kills.
This juvenile bird can be identified by its gray head and black-tipped beak.
Here you can see the juvenile and adult on the same perch, the juvie acting submissive.
A little bit later the juvenile gets comfortable, probably with a full crop.
At another carcass, weeks earlier, there were several vultures attending a roadside kill…
there were also some Common Ravens having a bit of fun at their expense.
Can you imagine how many rotting animals we would have on the roadsides if we didn’t have vultures cleaning them up for us? I think Turkey Vultures deserve a lot more respect from we humans and especially birders.
How many times have you been birding when someone thought they spotted a hawk, eagle or other raptor and then acted disappointed when they discovered it was “only a Turkey Vulture.” Come on folks, lets give TVs a fair shake here. They are a very important part of our ecology.
Maybe this video of a vortex of vultures I shot during their fall migration will give you a more positive view of these incredible birds.
References: 1Birds of North America Online