Turkey buzzard is a name incorrectly applied to the turkey vulture, a species of vulture that depends upon finding dead animals for the vast majority of its meals. Also called carrion crows and red-necked buzzards, the turkey vulture lives everywhere in the United States except for extreme northern New England. The bird employs acute senses to locate its food, using its large wings to stay aloft for long stretches, often without flapping them for hours.
While the common belief shared by most people is that circling turkey vultures mean an animal has died or is the process of doing so, this is not usually the case. Turkey buzzards use warm thermal currents to ride upon as they conserve energy. By using these currents, the bird can stay in the air for long periods as it seeks a meal. The turkey vulture is often just attempting to gain altitude as it circles, going higher each time, as it gets ready for a longer flight. Ornithologists also believe that circling in this manner is a form of play that the birds engage in, with large numbers of vultures taking part in this activity.
Identifying Turkey Vultures
The turkey vulture got its name because its dark feathers and the bare red skin on the head reminded people of those of the wild turkey. The turkey vulture averages from 24 to 25 inches in length, notes the Peregrine Fund website, and the bird has a wingspan ranging from between 5 to 6 feet. The "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds" reports that a turkey vulture holds its long wings in the shape of a wide V as it soars over the countryside. As it flies, you will notice the bird tip from side to side. The Turkey Vulture Society webpage states that when there are abundant thermal currents aloft, the vultures do not flap their wings for as long as six hours in some instances.
Eating Dead Animals
The turkey vulture uses a refined sense of smell that most other birds lack, as well as keen vision, to find dead animals. Often the bird will hone in on road-killed animals and land near them, hopping awkwardly to them before using their strong beaks to tear them apart. The head of the turkey vulture is bare for a reason---the bacteria inside the carcasses it consumes would stick to feathers and live, but on the bare skin, any that do wind up on the bird die quickly afterwards as the sun, in essence, bakes them off. By disposing of dead animals, the turkey vulture eliminates the diseases that the carrion could precipitate.
An Odd Defense
Although the turkey vulture lacks many natural enemies, it does sometimes have to try to avoid an attack by an opportunistic foe. The bird uses an odd defense, vomiting up half-digested food when approached by a predator. This can get into the eyes of the animal trying to raid its nest and cause it to end its attempt, or the horrible smell can be so overwhelming that the animal leaves. Turkey vultures that have to make a quick getaway from an eating site but have just partaken of lots of food sometimes vomit up their meal from their crop so they can take off. The attacking creature will often stop to eat the undigested food rather than continue to pursue the vulture.
- Turkey Vulture Society: Turkey Vulture Facts, Maps and Statistics
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Turkey Vulture
- Woodland Park Zoo: Turkey Vulture
- Peregrine Fund: Turkey Vulture
- "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds;" John Bull and John Farrand Jr; 2008
- turkey vulture image by Reisbegeleider.com from Fotolia.com