With its featherless red head, large black body and ungainly walk,
the turkey vulture (Cathares aura) is an awkward and unattractive
bird on land. But as it soars high in the air, rocking gently as it
rides the currents of the winds, it is a picture of grace and beauty.
Feeding mainly on carrion, the turkey vulture is often seen running
with awkward hops and flapping its wings, straining to lift itself
off the ground as a car or person approaches. More of a loner than
other vultures, it sometimes flies close to the ground, seeing small
dead snakes or rodents that higher-flying birds might miss. And unlike
the closely-related Black Vulture, common in southern states, it has
a highly-developed sense of smell that, along with its keen sight,
aids it in finding food.
Turkey Vultures do not build nests. They lay one to three reddish
brown and cream-colored eggs either on the ground or in an old building
or hollow log. The nestlings are fed by both parents, who regurgitate
digested food into their own bills, which are then used as “feeding
bowls.” The young leave the nest eleven weeks after hatching,
and by the time they are adults they may have a wingspread of almost
Vultures perform an important sanitation function, cleaning up dead
animals along roadsides or in fields. Since their beaks are not suited
for tearing fresh meat, they usually feed on carcasses that are well-decayed,
their bare heads aiding them in keeping clean. They have a digestive
system that destroys any disease-carrying bacteria that may lurk in
the rotting carrion.
The Turkey Vulture is one of the most successful scavengers, able
to survive in a great variety of habitats. It is more widespread than
any other vulture, found as far south as the Straits of Magellan at
the southern tip of South America and ranging northward to Hudson
Migratory in North America, the turkey vulture is a common sight
in the summer in northwest Illinois, flying high over fields or above
the bluffs of the Mississippi Palisades. Its wings form a dihedral
(a flattened V) as it flies, and in migration it often reaches heights
of 4,000-5,000 feet. It is said that the vultures return to this area
from Central America on March 15 and are sighted first along the river.
Keep your eye out for these harbingers of spring.