Home | Species Database | Species Accounts | Bibliography | Researchers | Related Sites | Login

Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura

Status: Lower risk

Population Trend: Stable.

Other Names: Brazilian Turkey Vulture (ruficollis), Central American Turkey Vulture (aura), Eastern Turkey Vulture (septentrionalis), Red-headed Vulture, Turkey Buzzard.

more photos
Cathartes aura
click to enlarge
Distribution: Nearctic/Neotropical. Southern CANADA (British Columbia, central Saskatchewan, Ontario) south through the UNITED STATES, Greater Antilles, MEXICO, Central America, and throughout lowland South America to ARGENTINA, CHILE, and TIERRA DEL FUEGO; TRINIDAD and FALKLAND ISLANDS; northern populations are migratory and winter mostly in southern and coastal UNITED STATES, MEXICO, and Central America. North American populations are steadily extending their range northward. more....

Subspecies: 6 races. C. a. septentrionalis: Eastern NORTH AMERICA (southern CANADA through eastern UNITED STATES to Gulf Coast); winters in southern and eastern UNITED STATES; C. a. meridionalis: Western North America from southern CANADA to central UNITED STATES; winters from California to ECUADOR and PARAGUAY; C. a. aura: Southwestern UNITED STATES and northern MEXICO south to northern COSTA RICA; Southern Florida and GREATER ANTILLES; C. a. ruficollis: Southern COSTA RICA south through northern COLOMBIA and northern VENEZUELA south through lowland South America east of the Andes to northern ARGENTINA, URUGUAY, and southern BRAZIL; TRINIDAD; C. a. jota: Southern COLOMBIA south through the Andes to southern CHILE and Patagonian ARGENTINA; C. a. falklandicus: Coast of western South America from ECUADOR to southern CHILE and TIERRA DEL FUEGO; FALKLAND ISLANDS. more....

Taxonomy: Despite the reviews by Friedmann and Ridgway (1950) and Wetmore (1964), the infra-specific taxonomy of this species remains confused, partly due to the lack of sufficient specimens (few bird skinners enjoy preparing vulture skins!). The treatment here rather arbitrarily follows Ferguson-Lees and Christie (2001). Molecular studies may show that two of the subspecies, C.a. ruficollis and C. a. jota, deserve full species recognition, as suggested by several authors, including Jaramillo (2003).

Movements: Partial, trans-equatorial migrant (Bildstein 2006). North American populations, except for those in the most southern portions of the United States and coastal California, are largely migratory. The race septentrionalis in eastern North America is believed to migrate largely within the U.S. and Canada, while the western race, meridionalis, moves south in huge flocks through Mexico and Central America in fall and north in spring (Kirk and Mossman 1998, Bildstein 2006). It is estimated that as many as three million Turkey Vultures migrate through this flyway (Bildstein and Zalles 2001). In South America, migration routes and the extent of the wintering range are not well documented. Some birds may move as far south as Paraguay, but most apparently remain in southern Central America and northern South America. Austral populations may migrate locally in the Chaco region of Brazil and Paraguay, and the Tierra del Fuego breeding population moves northward into mainland South America during the austral winter (Humphrey et al. 1970). more....

Habitat and Habits: Occurs in lower and middle elevations; less common in montane regions. Occurs in almost any habitat, but is generally found in open areas, or mosaics of clearings and forest, particularly in areas with rocky outcroppings. Common in the marine littoral zone in South America (Ecuador, Peru, Chile) and less common in unbroken forested areas than C. melambrotus, generally occurring only where that species is absent (Thiollay 2007). This species is also less abundant in the vicinity of towns and villages than the Black Vulture, except in southern Peru, where the latter species is absent (Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990). Soars with wings in a dihedral pattern, rocking slowly from side to side, often close to the ground. Usually occurs singly, or in scattered numbers, except at roosts or in migration, and is subordinate to the more gregarious and aggressive Black Vulture at carcasses. more....

Food and Feeding Behavior: Feeds on carrion of all types, but has a preference for smaller (and fresher) animals. Rarely kills live prey, but there are reports of birds capturing live fish, killing young herons and ibises in their nests (Brown and Amadon 1968), and attacking netted or tethered birds (Mueller and Berger 1967). Also feeds on garbage, feces, coconuts (ffrench 1991), and oil-palm fruit (Pinto 1965). This species and other cathartid vultures are fond of eating salt (Coleman et al. 1985). Turkey Vultures locate food by olfactory cues and are therefore generally the first vulture species to arrive at carcasses. more....

Breeding: No nest is built, but eggs are laid on the unlined floor of cave, in a crevice among rocks, hollow stump, sugar cane fields (Cuba), or even in old hawk nests (Brazil). Clutch size is almost always 2 eggs, which are creamy-white with brown and reddish brown dots. Both sexes participate throughout the whole nesting cycle from incubation to departure of the young. The incubation period is 38-41 days, and the young are able to fly after 70-80 days (Brown and Amadon 1968). more....

Conservation: One of the most common and widespread “raptor” species in the Western Hemisphere. Its range has been expanding steadily northward since the 1920s, a long-term trend that may be accelerated by global climate change (Kiff 2000). This species and Black Vultures were affected by eggshell thinning in the United States during the period of DDT use in the 1950s and 1960s (Kiff et al. 1980), but have since recovered. Both species have been trapped and killed periodically in the southern U.S., especially Texas, on the grounds that they carry disease and attack young livestock, but the latter behavior is unlikely for this species. Schlee (2000) recommended that all cathartid species be listed on CITES I. The Turkey Vulture is regarded as a species of "Least Concern" by BirdLife International. more....

Population Estimates: Rich et al. (2004) estimated the United States and Canada population at 1,305,000 individuals, but Ruelas Inzunza et al. (2010) reported a mean annual count of 1,895,679 individuals (30% higher) at the Veracruz River of Raptors hawkwatch site, even though only a portion of North American Turkey Vultures pass over the site. In fact, Kirk and Mossman (1998) estimated that probably more than 50% of the population of Turkey Vultures in the eastern United States and Canada does not migrate, and an increasing percentage of birds breeding in the western United States also remains north of Mexico in winter. Consequently, the actual numbers of Turkey Vultures in North America may be two times or more larger than the Rich et al. (op cit.) estimate.

Important References: 
Bent, A.C. 1937. Life histories of North American birds of prey. Order
  Falconiformes (Part 1). U.S. National Museum Bulletin 167.
Brown, L., and D. Amadon. 1968. Eagles, hawks and falcons of the world.
  Vol. 1. Country Life Books, London.
Coles, V. 1944. Nesting of the Turkey Vulture in Ohio caves. Auk
Ferguson-Lees, J., and D.A. Christie. 2001. Raptors of the world. Houghton
  Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Houston, D.C. 1994. Family Cathartidae (New World vultures). Pp. 24-41 in
  del Hoyo, J, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal (eds.), Handbook of the birds of
  the world. Vol. 2. New World vultures to guineafowl. Lynx Edicions,
  Barcelona, Spain.
Jackson, J.A. 1983. Nesting phenology, nest site selection, and
  reproductive success of Black and Turkey Vultures. Pp. 245-270 in S.R.
  Wilbur and J.A. Jackson (eds.), Vulture biology and management. University
  of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Kiff, L.F. 2000. The current status of North American vultures. Pp.
  175-189 in R.D. Chancellor and B.-U. Meyburg (eds.), Raptors at
  risk. World Working Group on Birds of Prey/Hancock House, Berlin/Blaine, WA.
Kirk, K.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1998. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). In A.
  Poole and F. Gill (eds.), The Birds of North America no. 339. The Birds of
  North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Mossman, M.J. 1991. Black and Turkey Vultures. Pp. 3-22 in M.N. Lefranc,
  Jr. (ed.), Proceedings of the Midwest Raptor Management Symposium and
  Workshop. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C.
Stager, K.E. 1964. The role of olfaction in food location by the Turkey
  Vulture and other cathartids. Los Angeles County Museum Contributions in
  Science no. 81.
Wetmore, A. 1964. A revision of the American vultures of the genus
  Cathartes Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 146:1-48.

Sites of Interest:
The Turkey Vulture Society
A non-profit organization promoting scientific study of the life habits and needs of the Turkey Vulture.
Kern Valley Vulture Watch
Migration counts for Kern County, California
Kern River Valley Turkey Vulture Festival
A migration-based festival, now in its 13th year.
Turkey Vulture photos.
Turkey Vultures in the Pacific Northwest
Monitors TV migration and movements in the Pacific Northwest.
Aves de Rapina do Brasil
Species account with emphasis on Brazil.

Andrews, Randolph
Bildstein, Keith
Bloom, Peter
Fry, Michael
Goodrich, Laurie
Lambertucci, Sergio
Sarasola, José Hernán

Last modified: 5/8/2014

Recommended Citation: Global Raptor Information Network. 2022. Species account: Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 23 Jan. 2022

Home | Species Database | Species Accounts | Bibliography | Researchers | Related Sites | Login

Copyright © 1999-2012 The Peregrine Fund. All Rights Reserved.