With a bald, red head and plain black feathers, the turkey vulture might not attract a horde of birders, but this amazing bird plays a vital role in our ecosystem as well as can do some pretty amazing things.
A vital part of our ecosystem
By feeding on a decaying animal, turkey vultures are preventing the spread of disease. If an animal that died from disease is left to decay, other animals might come across those remains and catch the disease, spreading it to other animals.
Turkey vultures will clean off all of the meat from a dead animal, leaving nothing but bones, thus keeping the disease from spreading to other animals.
Studies have shown that when the population of vultures decreases significantly in an area, the incidence of diseases increases. So while we might find their appetites unpleasant, without them, we might see more disease.
A group of vultures eating together is called a wake. When they are resting in a tree in a group, they are called a venue or committee.
Flight of the vultures
Have you ever looked up into the sky and seen a group of vultures circling? You might think it means that an animal has died or is about to die nearby, but that’s not always the case (turkey vultures don’t actually circle around dying animals waiting for them to pass).
Turkey vultures don’t spend a lot of energy flapping their wings when they are in the air. Rather, they ride heated air currents called thermals to get around and spread their wings to coast. If you see several of them circling in the sky, they might just be riding a thermal to get higher for a long flight. Turkey vultures can fly as high as 40,000 feet in the air. Amazing!
A group of vultures in flight is called a kettle.
Turkey vultures are pretty amazing. Despite their unpleasant eating habits, you have to respect their biological adaptations – they’re pretty darn cool. Here are some interesting facts about turkey vultures.
- They have an amazing sense of smell.
Unlike most birds, turkey vultures have a very sharp sense of smell. They can smell carrion from several miles away. This helps them find their next meal even when it isn’t visible from the sky.
They have a protective bony structure that keeps their nostrils clean and free of debris when they stick their heads in for a bite of carrion.
- Their stomachs can kill bacteria and germs that would make a human very sick – including those that cause anthrax, botulism, salmonella, and cholera.
The gastric juices in the stomach of a turkey vulture are very acidic (close to zero).
- They can scare away predators by regurgitating their food.
This tactic apparently smells so bad that predators will turn away from the bird. I mean, wouldn’t that smell make you run?
Scientists also theorize that regurgitating food allows the bird to be lighter and able to take flight faster to get away from a predator.
- They use their urine to keep clean and cool
Turkey vultures walk through some pretty unpleasant things. They urinate on their legs to help keep them clean. The acidic urine washes off bacteria, keeping their legs free of germs. They also use their urine to help keep them cool. Since they don’t sweat, turkey vultures will urinate on their legs and as the liquid evaporates, it will help to cool them off.
- They have an impressive wing span
The wings of a turkey vulture are 6 feet wide – that’s pretty big! You might see a turkey vulture on a tree with its wings up and open. This is called a horaltic pose and scientists believe that the birds do this to warm themselves up as well as to allow the sun’s UV radiation to kill off any bacteria on their bodies.
Turkey vultures have no call
Turkey vultures don’t have a voice box so they don’t sing or make calls like most birds. They do communicate through grunts and hisses.
- You can hear their noises here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Turkey_Vulture/sounds