With a name like “turkey + vulture”, you get no respect. Yet, this widespread New World vulture deserves a closer look.

The scientific name, Cathartes aura, means “purifier.” The “turkey” part of its common name stems from the resemblance of the adult bird’s featherless red head to that of a wild turkey.

Unlike other raptors that kill their prey, turkey vultures are scavengers. They poke their head into the body cavities of dead animals and rip the flesh with their large, powerful beak. Digestive juices kill any bacteria they might pick up from rotting meat. Having a featherless head, which they are unable to groom, helps them to stay clean.

Turkey vultures soar effortlessly, albeit sometimes unsteadily, on the thermals high above. Watch closely. Unlike many other bird species, they make very few wingbeats. Floating on the air currents, circling slowly, often teetering in the breeze, they search for carrion below. When they catch the scent of a dead animal, they descend and pick it clean.

With a wingspan of about six feet, the turkey vulture stands somewhere between between a red-tailed hawk and an eagle in size. They have a dark brownish/black body and silver gray feathers on the underside of the wings. If they fly close to the ground, you can discern a unique field mark (feature): the “finger” feathers at the tips of their wings.

Turkey vultures are year-round residents of Yosemite Lakes. You will often see them in the trees around Blue Heron Lake. On more than one occasion, while looking for birds in the bush, I look up and there they are: a committee of vultures sitting openly on a branch — their wings spread out — warming themselves in the morning sun. Lacking a voice box, they just sit there, staring at you.

So, now, imagine you have a mess of roadkill along your street or back yard. Go ask Saul, he will tell you to call in the turkey vultures, nature’s most efficient recyclers.

Until next month,

Keep birding.

Robert Groos

Robert Groos is a published photographer and keen observer of nature who lives in Yosemite Lakes Park. He shares some of his outstanding images of our local feathered friends along with some tidbits of interesting facts about each. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do. 

Previous posts:
Acorn Woodpecker 
Oak Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
California Quail
Bald Eagle
Western Kingbird