The California Turkey Vulture
Returning home one evening I noticed a dead pine tree with several large black “lumps.” As I drove closer, I realized the “lumps” were actually several roosting turkey vultures. I thought they’d make an interesting photo, so as soon as I got home I grabbed my camera and drove right back to the tree. Even more of the big birds had settled while others circled in the air overhead.
I’ve never seen a turkey vulture roost in a tree before, let alone such a large group mingling together so I decided to do a little research on this common bird of prey.
At first glance the turkey vulture may seem like an uninteresting carrion eater, and that’s where it’s usually seen—feasting on a dead animal along the roadside. Another spotting place is the sky, where they can be seen soaring high, riding the thermals during the heat of the day, its keen eyesight and excellent sense of smell searching out rotting carcasses, often several miles away.
One of our largest local birds, the turkey vulture is typically 25 to 32 inches long and has a wingspan of up to six feet. Most weigh between five and six pounds. But this is where their similarities to other large birds of prey ends.
The most noticeable difference between a turkey vulture and a hawk or eagle is the bird’s striking purplish red head. Instead of being covered with feathers, a turkey vulture’s head is bald, a feature that allows the bird to keep “clean” while poking through a carcass. The bird’s plumage is primarily dark brown and is very similar to our wild turkey, which it is named after.
They have weak, chicken-like feet good for running or hopping on the ground but not for grasping things. The turkey vulture has a thin, hooked beak and it takes them some time to tear apart and breakdown a carcass. Lastly, they don’t have a voice box, which means you will never hear them screeching from above like our hawks and owls. You’ll only see its quiet shadow in the sky above.
Turkey vulture breeding season begins in March and continues into June. It takes 38 to 41 days for two eggs to hatch; the chicks are ready to fly after 70 to 80 days. However, the young lads and lasses I spotted that day hadn’t been out of the nest very long because turkey vultures don’t leave their family units until the fall—after they’ve mastered the skill of thermal riding and locating food.