In praise of Turkey Vultures January 3, 2013

Posted by GGAS in Birding

Remember that old Rodney Dangerfield line:  “I don’t get no respect?” The same could be said about Turkey Vultures, one of our most common Bay Area birds. So when we saw this post by a TV fan on the 10000 Birds blog, we had to share it with you. Taking a new look at a familiar bird seemed like a good way to start 2013.


By Larry Jordan

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is probably one of the most misunderstood birds in North America.

Some people think they are ugly, but not I.

Turkey Vulture


Their odd looks serve very important purposes. The adult Turkey Vulture’s head and distal neck is reddish bare skin with blackish bristles, which not only helps keep their heads clean when partaking of a carrion meal, but they also use that featherless head to help regulate body temperature.

Turkey Vulture


They can tuck their bare heads into their feather-collared necks to help keep warm, and when they are heat-stressed they will increase blood flow to the head, neck and legs, which dissipates heat by evaporative cooling.

Of course they also help regulate their body temperature using their famous spread-winged postures. This is the “extended spread-wing posture”

Turkey Vulture


usually used to warm up in the morning sun or dry the wings, but sometimes it seems, just for fun.

Then there is the “delta wing posture” when Turkey Vultures face the sun and often preen.

Turkey Vulture


Turkey Vultures are known for eating carrion but what some people don’t realize is that, unlike most birds, they have an excellent sense of smell. Because of their extra olfactory powers, many other carrion-eating birds like hawks, eagles and other vultures follow Turkey Vultures to kills.

Turkey Vulture


This juvenile bird can be identified by its gray head and black-tipped beak.

Turkey Vulture


Here you can see the juvenile and adult on the same perch, the juvie acting submissive.

Turkey Vultures


A little bit later the juvenile gets comfortable, probably with a full crop.

Turkey Vulture


At another carcass, weeks earlier, there were several vultures attending a roadside kill…

Turkey Vultures


Can you imagine how many rotting animals we would have on the roadsides if we didn’t have vultures cleaning them up for us? I think Turkey Vultures deserve a lot more respect from us humans and especially birders.

How many times have you been birding when someone thought they spotted a hawk, eagle or other raptor and then acted disappointed when they discovered it was “only a Turkey Vulture.” Come on folks, lets give TVs a fair shake here. They are a very important part of our ecology.

Maybe this video of a vortex of vultures I shot during their fall migration will give you a more positive view of these incredible birds:   250 Turkey Vultures in Flight


Larry Jordan was introduced to birding after moving to northern California where he was overwhelmed by the local wildlife, forcing him to buy his first field guide just to be able to identify all the species visiting his yard.  Larry wanted to share his passion for birds and conservation and hatched The Birder’s Report in September of 2007.  He is a BirdLife Species Champion and contributes to several other conservation efforts, being the webmaster for Wintu Audubon Society and most recently, the habitat manager for the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network.

10000 Birds is a blog about international birding, wildlife and conservation. Its home page says, “‘There are approximately 10,000 bird species on this beautiful planet. Welcome to 10,000 Birds, where, between us, we expect to eventually see every single one. Expect plenty of commentary on natural history, science, politics, conservation, travel, and blogging along the way.”

Tags: 10000 Birds, Larry Jordan, Turkey Vulture.


  1. Raleigh McLemore
    January 19th, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    I’ve been following two groups of roosting TVs around my school in San Leandro, CA, while I was a teacher and presently in my first full year of retirement.

    The groups have been counted by my students and I, generally as they pop out of a line of trees on San Leandro Creek, in the morning, and less effectively as they circle towards the end of the day.

    The larger group is directly across from our school, with as many as 40 counted, and a smaller group about 200 meters North of our school on the creek of about 30 count.

    At times the two groups fly out together, but they are more likely to behave separately, coming and going.

    The birds come out of the trees with the first light of the sun, as they dry and warm they tend to drop to buildings nearby, the Veterans Bldg, and my school Bancroft Middle School. My classroom used to be on the second floor of the main building so I used the opportunity (although I taught earth science) to set up scopes and binoculars.

    My students were super excited to see the TVs spread their wings, preen and dry on the roof, and even on the gym vents.

    I used the drying of the birds and the fly-outs of the TVs to teach conduction, convection and radiation. One of my student’s father was a glider pilot and he dropped by and explained, watching the TVs circle how to “see” the thermal they were riding. He explained that thermals aren’t always “upwards streams of moving air” as I had been teaching, but are sometimes “bubbles” with closed top that birds ride over and then push off to find another thermal.

    My students learned to use the TVs to draw their best guess of what the thermal looked/felt like and then we used google maps to locate the thermal and try to determine if it was moving or the birds were moving off of it.

    Birds drying using the Sun’s radiation was obvious and easily understood by my students, something that the book didn’t do well. We even talked about the Sun being a star, a giant fusion device really, creating enough heat to warm a creature 150,000,000 kilometers away.

    The TVs fortunate location will be remembered by many of my students. Their role in the environment isn’t well understood by many and I think I helped.

    I appreciate your post on TV appreciation. I am presently working with Allen Fish, of GGRO, to learn raptor identification and he has been encouraging me to learn more about TVs.

    Raleigh McLemore
    Oakland, CA

  2. GGAS
    January 19th, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Wow! What a great use of nearby nature to teach a variety of subjects – biology, physics etc. Your students were lucky to have you!

    Good luck with the raptor training. GGRO is a great organization. We ran a two part interview with Allen in this blog earlier in the fall. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.