Turkey Vulture Identification

The identification of Turkey vultures is relatively straightforward. Turkey vultures look black from a distance, but upon closer examination, they have black and blackish-brown plumage. This article discusses and illustrates the recognition of turkey vultures in flight, perched, their typical behavior, preferred habitat, and range.

  • Adult turkey vultures look all black from a distance
  • Their plumage is black and blackish-brown
  • Male and females look alike
  • Turkey vultures are seen mainly soaring and gliding
  • Juvenile birds can be distinguished from the adult
  • It is the most widespread vulture in the Americas

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura.

The turkey vulture looks black from a distance, but it has parts that are black and blackish-brown. The back, neck, breasts, and belly are black. In perched birds, the folded wings consist of wing coverts and flight feathers and are a dark brown color. Turkey vultures male and female have unfeathered red heads and similar plumages, which makes it impossible to distinguish them solely on their appearance.

Turkey vulture identification

Plumage 

From afar, the plumage of a turkey vulture appears black. When viewed up close, subtle differences in tones of black and blackish-brown can be discerned.

The neck area, breast, and belly are predominantly black. The back (mantle) is black with hints of brown. The wing coverts on the folded wings are dark-brown edged with varying amount of lighter brown. The secondary flight feathers visible on the folded wing are dark with a varying amount of brown edging.

There is a good deal of variation in the plumage of turkey vultures. Adult birds in fresh plumages appear darker than browner and faded old plumages.

The turkey vultures have unfeathered red heads that is the bird’s most distinctive feature. The head looks small relative to the size of the bird.

There is no sexual dimorphism in turkey vultures, so males and females look the same. Even though females are slightly larger than males, it is impossible to distinguish males from females by physical appearance and plumage. 

In spite of the turkey vulture being a common and familiar bird, little is known about its plumage and molt cycles.

Size of the turkey vulture 

The turkey vulture is a large bird with an approximate length of 25.1 – 32 inches, reaching a 5.6 – 6 feet wingspan. The weight is approximately 4.4 lb on average.

Summary table showing the turkey vulture measurements.

Length (1)WeightWingspan (2)
25.1 – 32 inches
(male and female)
4.4 lb
(male and female)
5.6 – 6 feet
(male and female )   

(1) Measured from the tip of the tail to the tip of the bill with the neck stretched out.
(2) Distance between tips of outstretched wings.

What does a turkey vulture look like in the air?

Turkey vultures are typically seen in flight soaring and gliding. From a distance, turkey vultures appear dark. Their bicolored wing underside makes them easy to recognize. The red head is also noticeable and looks small relative to the size of the bird.

The wing color pattern in flight

The underside of the wing, in flight, is bicolored. The flight or wing feathers (primaries and secondaries) are silvery-gray white the wing coverts (feathers covering the base of the flight feathers) or the wing’s leading edge is black.

What does a turkey vulture look like standing?

Turkey vultures often perch with their wings outstretched. It is believed that they perform this action for various reasons including thermoregulation, drying their wings, getting rid of bacteria and parasites in their plumage.

Perched turkey vultures

Turkey vultures are gregarious birds. They perch on fence poles, branches, or utility poles in flocks of various sizes.  Though they are capable of walking easily, they do not do much walking other than around a carcass or wading in and out of shallow water, often to bathe. 

A turkey vulture’s body position varies depending on where it is perched. On a flat surface, it typically maintains an oblique or inclined position, more parallel to the surface. When perched on a branch or the tip of a pole, the vulture adopts a more upright or vertical position. 

Juvenile turkey vultures

Plumage

The plumage of juvenile turkey vultures is uniformly blackish with fewer or little dark-brown shades. Some juvenile birds have their wing covert feathers edged with buffy-white rather than brown. 

A young turkey vulture’s juvenile plumage lasts for one year after they leave the nest. The plumage differences between juvenile and adult birds become more apparent up close. 

Bare parts of an adult and juvenile turkey vultures

Adult turkey vulture

  • The head: Adult birds have unfeathered red heads, some of the upper neck. Some populations have a varying density of dark bristles and small black or white spots around the eyes, while others have bright red bare heads with no bristles. Some populations have reddish-purple tones in the nape area, while others have a white patch of folded skin. 
  • The bill of the turkey vulture is bicolored and deceivingly longer than it appears. The red of the head extends to nearly half the beak. The outer half is ivory white but gives the impression of having a short beak. Turkey vultures have prominent, rimmed, and perforated nostrils. 
  • Legs and feet: The turkey vulture’s legs and feet are red but look whitish most of the time. The whitish color is the coat of the viscous liquid (droppings) the birds defecate on their own legs and feet. The turkey vulture defecates on its legs as a mechanism to release excess heat. In cooler environments the turkey vulture’s legs tend to look red as birds do not need to release heat. 
  • Iris color: Adults of both sexes have light brown irises.

Juvenile turkey vulture

  • The head: Juvenile birds have an unfeathered head, which is black when they leave the nest. The head begins to lighten up over time. By the end of the first year, young turkey vultures have pink-gray heads. Juvenile birds have a varying amount of dark bristles. 
  • The bill is juvenile turkey vultures is black. After the bird leaves the nest, its beak gradually turns pale. In the first year, the beak is white at the base and black at the tip. The degree to which young birds transition to adult colors varies between individuals. Some birds attain their adult color in the first 16 months after leaving the nest, while others take longer.
  • The legs of a juvenile turkey vulture are gray to reddish-gray. Young turkey vultures also urinate on their own leg to release excess heat. Hence, their legs may look whitish.
  • Iris color: Young turkey vultures have dark irises, which also begin to turn brown as the bird matures.

Behavior

Turkey vultures in flight

Turkey vultures spreading their wing during the early morning hours at a roost site.

Turkey vultures are most visible when they soar and glide while taking advantage of thermal updrafts. They fly in a wobbly or teetering fashion with a characteristic dihedral wing formation. 

Turkey vultures seldom flap their wings. They do some wing flapping when they first take off and fly above the trees without having attained much speed. They also flap their wings more often during overcast days or times of the day when thermal updraft currents are weak. 

Turkey vultures generally fly at lower altitudes than black vultures. When they catch a whiff or smell of a carcass, they fly very low and in circles to pinpoint the carcass’ location.

Roosting turkey vultures 

Turkey vultures roost and predetermined roost sites scattered in the areas where they forage for food. Birds usually spend the night at the same roost site or a few preferred sites often in the company of black vultures.

Turkey vultures spend a lot of time preening themselves

Turkey vulture in preening action sliding its beak on a tail feather.

Turkey vultures appear to be preening themselves all the time. Field observations indicate that turkey vultures spend 2 to 3 hours per day preening their contour (body) and flight feathers. This is about 25% of the daylight dedicated to preening its own feathers.

Vultures preen their contour feathers but pay special attention to their flight feathers, which constitute a vulture’s most valuable foraging tool. Turkey vultures spend hours flying effortlessly as they sniff through the landscape for a hint of a carcass. Keeping their flight feathers in perfect working order is critical.

A typical preening practice consists of grabbing (gentle bite) the base of a flight or tail feather with its beak and sliding it towards the tip. This appears to help detach anything that is clinging to the feather and help rearrange the barbules and other parts of the feather. Vultures also rearrange the wing coverts (feathers that cover the base of the flight feathers), seemingly to assure flying efficiency.

The habitat of the turkey vulture

The turkey vulture is a habitat generalist. Habitat for the turkey vulture is where a carcass is located. They forage for food over open grasslands and savannah as well as over tall forests with a dense canopy. All vegetation and geography in-between constitute the turkey vulture habitat. The only place where turkey vultures appear to draw a line is heavily built out and treeless (without perches) urban areas.

The turkey vulture range

The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture in the Americas. Its range encompasses southern Canada to the tip of South America, in Tierra del Fuego.

In most of the United States and Canada, the turkey vulture is a spring and summer visitor. They are year-round residents in the Southeast and extreme southern USA.

More on the range distribution and migration of the turkey vulture here [link].

Birds that look like a turkey vulture

In North America, birds that look like a turkey vulture include the zone-tailed hawk, black vulture, the juvenile bald eagle, golden eagle, and the California condor.

In central and South America, the turkey vulture is very similar to the greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures, black vultures, zone-tailed hawk, juvenile king vulture, and the much larger Andean condor.

Voice of the turkey vulture

Turkey vultures are mostly silent. Not even during interactions, they appear to make sounds as other vultures do.  

The turkey vulture lacks the “sound chamber” in its syrinx, which helps produce sound in songbirds. Therefore, his voice is limited to guttural sounds and hisses. 

Turkey vultures make a long-drawn-out sound that can be described as a raspy hiss. Recordings of the turkey vulture vocalizations were taken at a nest, which would suggest that this sound may be given as a defense mechanism in reaction to potential nest predators.

 

Voices of the turkey vulture

Hissing calls given by chicks in the nest in reaction to the presence of the recordist: Recording by Andrew Spencer (Xeno-canto).