Wild Profile: meet the turkey vulture

Updated: October 10, 2018

A-close-up-portrait-of-a-red-headed-turkey-vulture By Matt Cuda/Shutterstock

Got turkey on the brain? Someone did, when they gave Cathartes aura its common name: the turkey vulture. With a bald head and dark body feathers, these big, goose-sized buzzards resemble wild turkeys. But the two species don’t have much else in common.

Turkey vultures are scavengers. Unlike most birds, they have a strong sense of smell. They feed almost entirely on carrion, and can scent a carcass buried a foot underground, or, while flying, from more than a kilometre away.

All vultures act as nature’s cleanup crews. They’ll strip a carcass completely, eating the eyeballs first and leaving only the bones. Thanks to incredibly strong immune systems, and highly acidic, bacteria-destroying gastric juices (up to 100 times more caustic than a human’s stomach acid, by some reports), a turkey vulture can feed on rotting flesh or diseased animals without getting sick.

Never heard a buzzard sing? You never will: they have no vocal organs. They can’t call, they can only grunt, growl, and hiss—often when threatened. A threatened turkey vulture will also regurgitate partially digested meat into the face of a raccoon, fox, or larger bird of prey. This foul-smelling corrosive vomit is—no surprise—usually enough to drive the predator away.

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