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Turkey Vulture (Cathartes Aura)

prepared by Glenn Berry. October 26, 2021

Glenn vs turkey vulture wingspan.JPG

Turkey Vultures can be seen flying from March to October. They are the big birds high in the sky that hold their wings in a shallow “V”. Like many large birds, they glide for long periods of time, flapping as little as possible to conserve energy. Their wingspan is longer than most men’s arms can reach.


The undersides of the wings are mostly white with dark along the leading edge. It can be difficult to see the white without binoculars. With a really close look, you can see the faces are featherless and red. The juveniles have brown faces.

Turkey Vulture in flight.JPG

Arm span of the author, Glenn Berry, compared the wingspan of a Turkey Vulture shown in brown behind.

Note the white feathers underneath the Turkey Vulture in flight.

While other birds flap and then coast, Turkey Vultures glide for long periods, rocking from side to side adjusting to small changes in the wind. An easy way to distinguish Bald Eagles from Turkey Vultures: Turkey Vultures rock. 


Fans claim it is a perfect bird because it has no predators and preys on nothing. Instead it is an essential worker, removing carrion. Since they eat only dead things, you never want them throw up near you (their main defence mechanism). After the banning of DDT, their numbers have increased. There is enough food around to maintain a large population in North America.


Most Ontario Turkey Vultures migrate to southern states in the US, but others migrate as far as South America. In very cold weather, they would have trouble finding (by smell) and then eating frozen carrion. Their sense of smell is remarkable, allowing them to locate animals that have been dead for only one day.


Not everybody loves Turkey Vultures. They are not beautiful up close. You can see through their nostrils. There are no feathers on the face. 

Turkey vulture close-up.JPG

Close-up of a Turkey Vulture.

To conserve energy especially during migration, a Turkey Vulture will stay airborne by using updrafts and thermals. They flap only when necessary. A thermal is a rising column of warm air within which a large bird can circle leisurely while increasing altitude. During migration, when many of them are circling at the same time at different altitudes, it looks like they are on an elevator of air. As they rise, the effectiveness of the thermal lessens and eventually they will head off one-by-one. When they are migrating, they all head off in the same direction, looking for the next thermal or updraft.

Turkey Vultures Circling.JPG

Turkey Vultures will congregate in the sky and circle using updrafts and thermals.

Your opinion of Turkey Vultures might change after hearing a podcast with Katie Fallon, Vulture Evangelist. Katie's book is called “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird".

The website has a wealth of information about birds and birding, including detailed guides and photos for each species; including the Turkey Vulture:


All vulture species eat carrion. This eliminates decaying carcasses, which helps curb the spread of diseases and bacteria. We can make the world safer for them. Since they eat roadkill and can be harmed by vehicles, roadkill should be moved away from the road. We should dispose of animals that we poison to prevent secondary poisoning when Turkey Vultures eat them.

Help make London more friendly to Turkey Vultures:

  • To prevent Turkey Vultures from suffering secondary poisoning, avoid using rodenticide and lead bullets for hunting.

  • Where rodenticide or lead is used, safely dispose of animals that have been contaminated.

  • Turkey vultures eat roadkill and can be struck by vehicles; move roadkill away from the road to prevent accidents

  • Avoid use of pesticides and reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.

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