Lake Milton Raptor Center

Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura
Turkey Vulture Turkey Vulture Turkey Vulture

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Falconiformes
  • Family: Cathartidae
  • Genus: Cathartes
  • Species: Cathartes aura
  • Geographic Range

    Nearctic: Cathartes aura are most commonly located throughout the United States, but have dispersed into the lower areas of Canada and even down into the Southern tips of South America.

    Physical Characteristics

    The head of the common Turkey Vulture is perhaps its most unique characteristic, being very small in size when compared to its voluminous body. The head and neck alike are red in color and lack a feather covering, with the exception of a thin layer of down. The adult-wings of the bird cover a distance (when extended) of around 6 feet and form into the shape of a wide, shallow "V" when in flight. The feathers of the animal are nearly black, however, the wings are delicately patterned with silvery lining. The feet are found to be quite weak due to their main function of running along the terrain rather than grasping live-prey from the skies. Also common to this species is a frail beak, though the strength of this element varies between the Old and New World species of Vulture.

    Natural History

    Food Habits

    The Turkey Vulture is a common carrion eater. Most of the bird's time is spent soaring gracefully over the land in search of the animal carcasses on which it feeds. The Vulture's keen senses of both smell and sight aid in the location of rotting meat. Because this species does not kill in order to attain food, its claws and feet alike have become rather weak appendages for grasping.


    The annual nesting period for Cathartes aura takes place during warmer weather. Locations for this are usually found simply upon the ground under the protection of camoflauge, but can sometimes be found in caves. Adult Turkey Vulture's lay only 2 eggs during the nesting period.


    The elusive nature of Cathartes aura has allowed this species to maintian a very mysterious lifestyle, meaning that a large portion of the bird's behaviors and reasons behind them remain yet misunderstood. For example, the ability to locate food and then communicate the discovery to other individuals over fairly long-range distances accurately has yet to be fully comprehended in the scientific world. However, we have observed the Vulture's unusual habit of returning to summer feeding grounds precisely upon the Vernal Equinox. During winter months, the Turkey Vulture travels South due to a declination in food supply.


    Though widespread, the Vulture mainly inhabits aresas of deciduous forest and woodland, and adjacent farmland or other open areas that can be easily scanvenged. Rarley is Cathartes aura found in dense tropical environments that are accompanied by high amounts of rainfall and tropical temperatures.

    Biomes: tundra, temperate forest & rainforest, temperate grassland, desert, tropical deciduous forest, tropical savanna & grasslands, mountains

    Economic Importance for Humans


    The Turkey Vulture's ability to digest infected, rotting meat without impending any negative effects to its own health is a rather peculiar attribute and may prove useful in medical science. Because their diets consist of carrion, Vultures act as nature's own cleaning devices, removing infected carcasses from the environment before they pose the threat of disease to other animals or even humans in the area.


    Because the Vulture species possesses such an immense size, on occassion, a bird in flight may come in contact with and even endanger the flight pattern of passing aircraft. However, this problem is only a minor one being so rare in occurence.


    Status: no special status

    Although Cathartes aura is not yet endangered, many of its close-relatives, such as the California Condor, are. The main reasons for this rely on human development which causes environmental detereoration, making it difficult for the species to locate food and proper nesting sights. In the case of Cathartes aura , a reduction in the number of the species has occured due to strict mandations in some areas to bury animal carcasses found in the wild. The decreased food supply has caused the Turkey Vultures in these areas to literally starve to death.