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Turkey Vultures Don’t Deserve the Bad Rap: Cool Facts on These Iowa Scavengers

  • 2/20/2015 8:27:00 AM
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Turkey Vultures Don’t Deserve the Bad Rap: Cool Facts on These Iowa Scavengers from the Iowa DNRThese scary looking vultures may be nature’s garbage collectors and have some especially gross (but effective!) defense mechanisms, but they are also very clean, curious and quite likeable creatures.

Harbingers of spring

Turkey vultures migrate south for the winter and return to Iowa for the warm months based on when carrion—dead mammals—will not freeze. Swarming around in a cluster in the morning or evening, you may see them one day and then gone the next, if the group is migrating further. But local vultures will not be far behind.

A wake of birds

Turkey vultures roost in large groups on dead, leafless trees. Groups of perched vultures are called a “wake.” Individuals live in the same communal roost most of their life, and usually sleep in the same roost in the same tree on their particular branch every night. Occasionally a vulture may wander up to 200 miles away, visiting different roosts each night, and then return to their home roost a week or two later.

Equal opportunity incubators
The birds mate from March into June. Their “nest” is a bare surface in a protected place, such as a cliff, cave, rock crevice, burrow, inside a hollow tree, or in a thicket. Generally two eggs are laid, a whitish-cream color with dark brown or lavender spots on the larger end of the egg. The adults share in the care of their new family, taking turns incubating the eggs for 30 to 40 days. When hatched, the adults regurgitate food for their nestlings for 10 to 11 weeks.

Even scavengers can be picky eaters
With a body length of 2.5 feet and a 6-foot wingspan, it is surprising that their body weight is only 2 to 4 pounds. Turkey vultures are not birds of prey, as their feet are weak and useless for grabbing prey. Their beaks, however, are powerful enough to rip through the hide of a dead deer or cow. With no vocal organ, turkey vultures are only able to grunt or make low hisses, but their sense of smell is rare in the bird world. They can smell carrion that’s less than 12 to 24 hours old from more than a mile away. They want mammal meat as fresh as possible—preferably that of a plant-eating mammal—and will not eat extremely rotted carcasses.

Kettle up
Turkey vultures have excellent daytime eyesight and search for carrion while they catch warm updrafts and soar in the sky. Groups of vultures are called kettles when they soar upward in spirals. Hawks are known to look for kettles to find rising air for their own flight.

Projectile defense
When frightened by intruders, turkey vultures may pretend to be dead. If on their nest, the vultures will hiss and regurgitate, accurately hitting their target up to six feet away. The smell of their vomit is so bad that this defensive move is very successful. The strong acid in their stomach can also kill bacteria and viruses, and so vultures play an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carcasses that would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.

Keeping it clean
Despite the fact that they dig around in bloody carcasses for meals and urinate onto their legs to keep cool in the heat of the day, turkey vultures are very clean birds and will spend two to three hours a day preening. They also bathe in water when possible: preening feathers, submerging, shaking and scrubbing for a half hour. They spread their wings out in the sunshine to dry.

Curious critters
Turkey vultures seem to have a genuine curiosity about people and objects. Injured turkey vultures in wildlife rehabilitation centers have been known to bond with a particular person. They like to play games and will untie their special person’s shoelaces and bring an object to the person to play tug-of-war. Caretakers have found them to be gentle, inquisitive and very intelligent.

With their own kind, turkey vultures will play follow the leader, tag, and speed soaring. In their roost, the birds have a pecking order and use body language and eye contact in a manner which is clearly comprehensible to observers.

Let them be
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to possess or kill turkey vultures in the United States and violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 and imprisonment of up to six months.

Learn more about Iowa’s critters on our Iowa Wildlife board on Pinterest.