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Hear a story about the turkey vulture.
Hear turkey vultures feeding.

from The Birds of Texas
by John L. Tveten

The turkey vulture is one of three vulture species found in North America, the other two being the black vulture and the California condor, an endangered species. Both the turkey vulture and black vulture range widely across Texas, although the black vulture is an infrequent visitor to the Panhandle and the northern Trans-Pecos. Turkey vultures are found across the U.S. while black vultures occur mainly in the south.

To most Texans, vultures are simply "buzzards," but that is an unfortunate misnomer. The word "buzzard" was first applied to a common buteo hawk in Europe and early settlers used the term to describe the vultures found in America. American vultures, however, are a distinct family and differ from those in Europe, Asia and Africa, which are more closely related to hawks and eagles.

American vultures have small, unfeathered heads and hooded beaks, both of which are useful adaptations for feeding on the carrion that makes up a major portion of their diets. Their talons are weak and poorly suited for grasping the living prey taken by most hawks and their close relatives. Vultures are gregarious birds, feeding together and assembling in large flocks to roost at night. During the nesting season, however, they become solitary. They do not build nest structures, but instead lay their eggs in sheltered nooks on rocky ledges, in the hollow trees, or even in deserted buildings.

The turkey vulture is a large, sleek black bird with a naked red head, white beak, long tail and six-foot wing span. Its ratio of body weight to wing area makes it a near perfect sailplane. The turkey vulture uses thermals to carry it aloft, where it soars high above the ground, sweeping in wide circles within the bounds of the rising columns of warm ascending air. Its slender wings appear two-toned from below, the steel-gray flight feathers contrasting with black wing linings.

Its cousin, the black vulture, is smaller and has a short tail, black head and a wing span less than five feet. Its shorter, broader wings have white patches near the tips. The black vulture's build makes it less efficient in soaring, so it will alternate rapid flapping with short glides. Unlike the turkey vulture, which feeds mostly on carrion and refuse, the black vulture will prey on small mammals, reptiles and young birds.

Turkey vultures breed throughout Texas but typically migrate south in the winter. Although some stay year-round, most spend the winter in Central America. Black vultures also migrate and may travel as far south as Brazil. Both are common in open country, woodlands, fields and farms, with black vultures more likely to be found near human settlements and garbage dumps.

Do vultures find food by sight or smell?

Ornithologists have long wondered whether vultures locate their decaying food by sight or smell. Birds are particularly attuned to sight and sound, but most display little sense of smell. The turkey vulture seems to be an exception. It has a particularly well-developed olfactory lobe in its brain and experiments indicate a keen sense of smell. Even so, it seems unlikely that odor can play a major role in detecting carrion from the altitude at which the vulture often forages. In that case, it seems more likely that one vulture spots a carcass and others within sight are guided by its actions.

Excerpts from The Birds of Texas by John L. Tveten with permission from Shearer Publishing, Inc.

More Bird Facts

Male and female vultures look alike. They have no song or call but will hiss and grunt when feeding or frightened.

Vultures play an important role in nature because they eat carrion and refuse. This can be very messy, so vultures have a bald head. (...so they won't wear their food!)

The female turkey vulture lays two white eggs, which may have brown spots and splotches. Both parents share the incubation chores. The chicks hatch in 38 to 41 days and are downy white with bare black faces. They are fed by regurgitation and mature slowly, not leaving the nest area until they are about 11 weeks old.

Immature birds have blackish heads and lack the facial wrinkles of the adults.

Hear Interviews with Experts

Do vultures migrate?

Can you find the vulture in this picture to color?

Scientific names of vultures, hawks and falcons

The Migratory Birds of Texas



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This website was a project of the Passport to Texas Radio Series and Texas Parks & Wildlife from 1999-2001 | Website designed by Pallasart Web Design | © 2002 KJ Productions and audioeclips | Photograph © John L. Tveten