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 is bright red in color. Their relatively large beak is a white color, while its sharp eyes are dull yellow. Most of their body is dark, as are the forewings but the undersides of its 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 southern most part of Tierra del Fuego in Chile. They are commonly seen in open spaces like roadsides, suburbs, countryside and farm fields, and around food sources such as trash heaps, landfills and construction sites.
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.
The Turkey vulture mostly eats a wide range of carrion, which includes small mammals and large grazers, preferring recently dead animals and avoiding those that have reached a stage of putrefaction. It rarely feeds on plant matter, pumpkin and other crops, shoreline vegetation, invertebrates and live insects.
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 the Wikipedia resource the total population size of this species is around 4,500,000 individuals. Overall, currntly Turkey vultures are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today remain stable.
As Turkey vultures are major eaters of carrion, they have an important part to play in biodegradation.