Turkey vultures are large birds, weighing up to five pounds with wingspans of up to six feet. Their most recognizable feature is the naked read head. The white or ivory beak is short, strong, and hooked. The two nostrils are not divided, so from the side you can see all the way through its beak.
Vultures in this ecosystem
In the winter, turkey vultures from the greater Yellowstone ecosystem fly to Mexico or Central America in huge flocks, sometimes migrating alongside other birds like Swainson’s hawks.
Vultures perform an important role in this ecosystem. Their binomial name, Cathartes aura, translates to “cleansing wind,” which perfectly describes what they do. Their digestive systems are perfectly suited to cleaning up roadkill, washed-up dead fish, and other recently deceased animals.
Turkey vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is illegal to take, kill, or possess them. The Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary has the appropriate permits to keep them.
Unlike most other birds, turkey vultures have a highly-developed sense of smell that helps them find their preferred food: fresh carrion. They almost never kill their own prey, although some other vulture species, like black vultures, are known to.
Since a wild turkey vulture never knows where its next meal is coming from, they will often gorge to the point where they can’t fly, leaving them vulnerable to predation. This leads to an unusual (and rather disgusting) way of defending themselves: projectile vomiting foul-smelling, partially digested meat mixed with stomach acid at the predator’s face. Their load lightened, they can then fly off to safety.
At the Sanctuary, our vultures eat a variety of muscle and organ meat, including bone that they can get marrow from.
BEHAVIOR & Lifespan
Turkey vultures are gregarious birds. Even though you usually see them flying alone, they gather together to roost at night, sometimes in groups of hundreds.
In the wild, turkey vultures live less than 16 years, but they been known to live up to 30 years in captivity.