Nature’s Sanitation Crew

People really like cute, little birds. Northern Cardinals, for instance. Or Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. How about Black-capped Chickadees?  People also tend to like birds that they consider majestic, such as Bald Eagles or Great Blue Herons. But there are certain birds that people seem to take for granted and are not so fond about. Take the Turkey Vulture.

Turkey vultures? Don’t they eat dead things? And unlike Chickadees, most people don’t consider Turkey Vultures “cute”. If you mention Turkey Vultures to people they seemed put off because they immediately associate them with death. You have to admit, Turkey Vultures have a pretty bad rep. I like Turkey Vultures though. I feel they are misunderstood.

They may have a bad reputation, but Turkey Vultures are fascinating birds. They have an important job; by eating rotting carcasses they help prevent the spread of bacteria and diseases. Think of them as Nature’s Sanitation Crew. So to prove how amazing they are, here are some fun facts about Turkey Vultures.

  • Unlike many other birds, Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them find carrion.

They have the largest olfactory (smell) system of all birds. Turkey Vultures use their sense of smell to find their main source of food, carrion, which is the decaying flesh of dead animals. They can smell carrion from over a mile away while they are soaring thousands of feet in the air. While eating freshly dead animals seems disgusting to us, Turkey Vultures help keep the environment clean by doing so. However, they won’t eat just anything. They will usually eat fresh carrion that is between 12 and 24 hours old. Could you imagine how many dead animals would be laying around on the side of roads if Turkey Vultures weren’t there to be the garbage crew? Now that would be disgusting.

Adult Turkey Vulture (Image via
  • Turkey Vultures are considered birds of prey, but they actually couldn’t catch prey if the wanted to.

Turkey Vultures are big, so you would expect them to have large feet as well. Not the case. Their feet look more like chicken feet than a bird of prey’s, such as a hawk. As a result they are not able to rip into prey using their talons. They make up for this by having very strong beaks; perfect for tearing into carcasses.

  • Even though they eat carrion, Turkey Vultures are sanitary birds.

Have you ever seen a Turkey Vulture up close?  They are large black birds with red, bald heads. If Vultures had feathers on their heads, carrion would get caught in their feathers. Since they are bald this doesn’t happen , so they avoid contracting diseases like salmonella, botulism, and anthrax. Their immune systems can also handle eating rotting food because their stomach acid breaks down the meat quickly, so pathogens don’t infect the bird.

Turkey Vulture with carrion (Image by Kevin Cole via wikimeidia commons)
  • They have an interesting defense mechanism: vomiting.

Speaking of their stomach acid, Turkey Vultures will induce vomiting when they feel threatened. The smell will deter predators from approaching and can also burn them. In a study of Whiteback Vultures, they found that their stomach pH levels are between 1 and 2, which is more corrosive than acid rain. Turkey Vultures are not the only birds to use vomiting as a defensive tool. Terns and Herring Gulls employ the same strategies.

  • Turkey Vultures are amazing at soaring.

I was surprised to learn that Turkey Vultures are weak fliers. But once they get in the air, they can soar like no other. They use the thermals updrafts to help them reach high altitudes. Airplane pilots have reported seeing Turkey Vultures at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet. They can go for hours with flapping their wings. Turkey Vultures will form large groups while soaring, called kettles. When migrating they can form kettles of thousands of birds. They can also travel up to 200 miles per day.

  • Despite being large birds, Turkey Vultures only weigh between 2 and 4 pounds!

Since they are so light, they barely use any energy while soaring and practically float on the thermal updrafts. Many hawks will seek out Turkey Vulture kettles and soar above the vultures to take advantage of the rising air currents.

  • Bonus: How can you tell the difference between a Turkey Vulture and their cousin the Black Vulture in flight?

Turkey Vultures soar with their wings in a ‘V’ shape and teeter in the air to catch as much current as possible. Their white wing feathers spread across their entire wingspan. Black Vultures soar with their wings flatter, flap more often, and their white wing feathers on on the edges.

(Image via

So if you weren’t originally a fan of Turkey Vultures I urge you to  give them  a second chance. After learning more about them I’ve come to appreciate them and enjoy watching them soar. Their presence is a benefit to us and their unusual habits are what make them interesting. Maybe instead of describing them as “majestic” or “cute” as we do with other birds we should just call them what they really are: awesome. 🙂

(Image via wikimedia commons)





Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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