Turkey buzzard, Buzzard, John crow, Carrion crow
The Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most widespread of the New World vultures. Like all New World vultures, it is not closely related to the Old World vultures of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Turkey vulture has very few natural predators and in the United States, it receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Turkey vultures are large birds of a dark brown color, which from a distance seem black, with long, wide wings. There are long "fingers" at the tips of their wings and their long tails extend past their toes in flight. The head and neck have sparse bristles and are bright red in color. Their relatively large beak is a white color, while their sharp eyes are dull yellow. Most of their body is dark, as are the forewings but the undersides of their flight feathers (on the trailing edge and tips of the wings) are paler, creating a two-toned effect.
Turkey vultures are found from Canada’s southern border to the southernmost part of Tierra del Fuego in Chile. These birds are widespread over nearly all American habitats but they tend to show particular habitat preferences. They are most commonly found in relatively open areas which juxtapose with woodland, which are important both for nesting and roosting. In North America, they generally avoid enclosed forested areas that may hamper their ability to take flight and tend to often favor hill or low mountainous areas that make catching flight easier with less effort. These birds are often seen over grasslands but are usually absent from completely treeless areas such as some parts of the prairies or Great Plains. Additionally, they may adapt to tropical and subtropical forests, shrublands, deserts, and semi-desert, wetlands, and foothills. They also favor agricultural land, mainly pastureland or other low-input farmland for foraging, and may be seen over urban areas.
Turkey vultures typically roost in large groups, but search independently for food, during daylight hours. Several hundred birds have been seen roosting together, sometimes along with black vultures. Populations living in colder areas migrate to warmer climates. They roost on dead, leafless trees, and sometimes nest in caves. A vulture is often seen standing with its wings spread, a stance believed to serve several purposes: warming the body, drying the wings, and baking off bacteria. These birds are majestic soarers; when flying their wings are slightly raised to form a “V”. They soar gracefully on thermals and may soar in a small group, roosting in larger numbers.
Turkey vultures feed primarily on a wide variety of carrion, from small mammals to large grazers, preferring those recently dead, and avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. They may rarely feed on plant matter, shoreline vegetation, pumpkin, coconut, and other crops, live insects, and other invertebrates. They rarely, if ever, kill prey themselves; when they do it tends to be comprised of small weak offspring of various animals. They also will feed near bodies of water on washed-up fish or insects that have become stranded in shallow water.
The Turkey vulture is monogamous, the mating-pair bond lasting for the breeding season, often for the whole year. Adult bonded pairs spend a great deal more time with each other than with any other vultures. The mating ritual begins with several birds gathering on the ground, hopping in a circle with their wings partially spread. A bird might in flight closely follow a possible mate while performing a ritual of diving and flapping. Breeding occurs in North America from March to June. Females usually lay two eggs, sometimes one, but rarely three. Both of the parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 30 to 40 days. The fledging stage is reached after 70 to 80 days and the birds are independent after about a week.
Most documented Turkey vulture deaths are caused by humans, including collisions with vehicles or structures, and entrapment in leg-hold traps and fencing. People sometimes destroy the roosts of turkey vultures. They sometimes die due to poisons or lead from dead animals that they eat, particularly lead shot in carcasses or piles of guts left by hunters. Some are trapped and killed due to mistaken fears that they are responsible for spreading disease.
According to the All About Birds resource the total breeding population size of the Turkey vulture is around 18 million individuals. According to Wikipedia resource, the total population size of this species is around 4,500,000 individuals. Overall, currently, Turkey vultures are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today remain stable.
Like other vultures, this species plays an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion, which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.