July 5, 2012 —
While few would contend that the turkey vulture is attractive, most would probably admit that in flight, it is indeed beautiful and that it most definitely has some unique—and somewhat offensive—characteristics.
In flight, the wings form the appearance of a “V,” and the birds draft on thermals, rocking from side to side. With a wingspan of roughly six feet, the dark brown bird with silvery underside paints a surprisingly fluid image in the air. Flight is largely characterized by soaring, which can go on for hours as they ride pockets of rising warm air, called thermals. The large birds can reach drafting speeds of up to 60 miles per hour as they crest the top of a thermal, then gradually lose altitude until they locate another thermal and commence the sequence again.
Much to our benefit, given the frequency of road-killed animals in rural regions like the Upper Delaware, turkey vultures eat carrion, locating carcasses through an acute sense of smell. The lack of feathers on their heads helps to keep them cleaner as they enjoy their unsavory meals. The gentle and non-aggressive birds lack a vocal organ, instead emitting hissing and grunting sounds.
Other characteristics that may seem unsavory, but are actually purposeful, include the following:
Turkey vultures often vomit when approached by predators. This may be an attempt to lighten their load for escape by flight or to ward off a predator with the foul-smelling regurgitant. It may also be done in hopes that the predator will choose the free meal instead of the bird. Turkey vultures also practice urohydrosis, by directing urine onto their own legs. Since the birds can not sweat, the evaporating urine helps to cool them on warm days. Also, the urine contains strong acids which may help to kill bacteria present on the legs from the bird stepping on the carrion it eats.
Similar in size to the bald eagle, the turkey vulture’s head is small and reddish when mature. Immature birds have gray heads.