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ANIMAL
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Western turkey vulture

Scientific name: Cathartes aura aura


CLASS: Aves
ORDER: Ciconiformes
FAMILY: Cathartidae

Feeding Type: Carnivore
STATISTICS: Height: 25 to 31 in; Wingspan: 6 to 8 ft ; Weight: 3 to 4 lbs

DESCRIPTION:
The all-black plumage with some blue, green, and purple iridescence and the rather small, unfeathered red head with white bill make this species easy to identify. Legs and feet are a pale, fleshy white. The bird has a characteristic flight-profile: The wings are held in a shallow "V" with virtually no flapping. Due to “light wing loading,” the turkey vulture is more buoyant in the air making it able to stay aloft close to the ground.

RANGE:
It can be found from southern Canada to the Caribbean and the Falkland Islands as well as throughout Central and South America.

HABITAT:
The turkey vulture has adapted to a wide range of habitats. It can be found from the cold deserts of Patagonia to the tropical forest of Amazonia. Most populations more or less reside in one area, but those of the western U.S. are migratory, wintering in South America. This excellent adaptation allows them to live in forests as well as open habitats.

ADAPTATIONS:
The turkey vulture has the unique adaptation of no feathers on its head. This is to reduce the chance of picking up bacteria while eating dead and decaying organisms, or carrion feeding. It has a very sharp, hooked beak for tearing flesh, and long toes to give it stability while feeding. Its smaller beak does not tear through large carcass hides so it confines itself to the carcass’ natural openings.

The vulture also allows feces to fall directly onto its feet, which is believed to help coat and protect its legs from bacteria on the carrion and cool its body. The feces have water and will evaporate, thus acting as a cooling agent.
The vulture can reach speeds of up to 40 mph and does not need to expend much energy on journeys due to its ability to cover considerable distances on motionless wings.

This vulture is a very social bird and can be found in groups of around 70 vultures in a single tree. It will also search for food in groups of three to 12 vultures. It migrates in large flocks and may travel a long way before feeding.
It will soar for long distances without flapping because it coasts on the thermal waves in the atmosphere. It has keen eyesight to aid in locating prey from high above, and a superior sense of smell to aid in finding carrion meals of two-to-four-day old dead carcasses.

REPRODUCTION/GROWTH:
No real nest is built. It scratches out indentations in the soil. The bird lays its eggs in caves, hollow logs or tree-stumps, a suitable depression in a swamp, or hidden in a dense thicket. If any nest material is gathered, it is taken from the immediate surroundings and may consist of rotten wood, dead leaves on the ground, or even hay or straw on the rare occasions when the birds choose to nest in an old shed. Such material appears simply to form a cushion for the eggs. Two to three eggs are laid from February to June. Both parents incubate the eggs, which take about 34 to 41 days to hatch. Young are fed by regurgitation. The young turkey vulture is rarely left alone, but when it is, and there is a threat, it will defend itself by hissing and regurgitating on its adversary. The young turkey vulture will take its first flight at nine to ten weeks of age.

PREY/PREDATOR:
Prey only to humans
Predator to anything dead, dying or sick

WILD DIET:
Dead and decaying flesh of just about any organism

STATUS:
In good numbers. It is expanding its range in some areas.

SPECIAL NOTES:

  • Incorrectly referred to as a buzzard, the vulture will throw up when scared or angry. A fully-grown turkey vulture can regurgitate on a predator from six feet away!
  • The turkey vulture’s scientific name is Carthartes aura, which is Latin for "cleansing breeze.”


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Birdlife International. Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol 2. New World Vultures to Guineafow. Lynx Edicion 1994
  2. Perrins, Christopher, C. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. New York, NY: Prentice Hall Editions, 1990
  3. Terres, John K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980
  4. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. Birds. Second Edition. Volume 8. Edited by Michael Hutchins, Jerome Jackson, Walter Bock and Donna Olendorf. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2002.

Published: March 2011

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