Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura
A Turkey Vulture specimen on display in the exhibit "Birds of D.C."

A large (26-32 inches) dark raptor, the Turkey Vulture is most easily identified by its dark brown body, featherless red head, and huge wingspan. This species may be separated from the related Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) by that species’ smaller size, gray head, and shorter tail. Male and female Turkey Vultures are similar to one another in all seasons. The Turkey Vulture breeds across much of the United States (patchily distributed in the Great Plains) and southern Canada south to southern South America. Populations breeding on northern and interior portions of this range migrate south to the southern half of the U.S. for the winter. Populations breeding in the southeastern U.S., California, and the tropics are generally non-migratory. Turkey Vultures typically breed and roost in dense woodland while feeding in more open habitats, such as grasslands, meadows, and fields. In some areas, Turkey Vultures also utilize man-made structures, such as abandoned buildings and utility poles. This species feeds almost exclusively on carrion, rarely killing prey itself. Due to this species’ need to scavenge for food, Turkey Vultures are most easily observed soaring high above the ground in search of carrion. Scientists have discovered that this species possesses a more developed sense of smell than the Black Vulture, and that Black Vultures often wait for Turkey Vultures to find food before driving them off and taking the carcass for themselves. This species is primarily active during the day.

DC Information

Common permanent resident throughout this area, joined by northern migrants in winter. Breeds from early April to late August in hollow trees and on ledges in open areas and adjacent forests. Sexes are similar.

Distribution Map

distribution map for this species