September’s Bird of the Month

September’s Bird of the Month: Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura

We all know the western stereotype of our hero dying of thirst lost in the wild west frontier, and the impending doom of vultures circling overhead. While Turkey Vultures do love dead things, they cannot “sense” when something is going to die. They can, however, detect dead odors from extremely far away. Turkey Vultures use their broad wings to ride the rising hot air, which allows them to glide for long distances without using much energy. While on the wing, vultures can detect scents in concentrations of just a few parts per trillion, while humans can only smell up to one part per million. One of the adaptations these wonderful birds have developed to better help locate the odor of rotting flesh is that they lack a septum, which is the middle wall dividing the nostril. This allows a vulture to detect a constant stream of scents. 

These birds are extremely important to the cycle of life; being a large decomposer, they are the ones who help jumpstart the process of breaking down dead matter. Have you ever wondered why the Turkey Vulture doesn’t have feathers on its head? The answer is cleanliness. When using their beaks to dig into a carcass, head feathers would get covered in rotting flesh, so vultures evolved to not grow feathers on their face. 

An interesting behavior Turkey Vultures have developed is how they use their vomit. Now I know what you’re thinking, “isn’t vomiting just a way to get rid of bad stuff in your body?” Not for Turkey Vultures. For them, it is a defense mechanism. If an animal or human gets too close to a Turkey Vulture’s nest and doesn’t heed the warning hiss of these birds, they may vomit onto their would-be attacker. Considering what they eat, this defensive behavior can be extremely effective. 

The vulture family has been documented to be aged as old as 60 million years. The wonderful Cathartes aura (which translates to “golden purifier”) was first described in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus. Turkey Vultures currently have a stable population. The species’ breeding season is from March to June. Clutch size is one to three eggs, and eggs can take up to 40 days to hatch. The fluffy nestlings are fed by both parents and fledge in 60-80 days.

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