Buitre – Turkey Vulture

This is Buitre (boo-ee-tray), a female Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), who came to us in 2012. She was born in Summer 2011. She is non-releasable because she was hit by a car, which required surgery on her wing. She will be an ambassador of her species. We are very pleased to have her here at the Foundation.

The turkey vulture’s head is bald and red. Its plumage is primarily dark brown. Males and females appear identical. Turkey vultures have weak, chicken-like feet, which are suitable for running on the ground but not for grasping. These vultures cannot lift or carry food with their feet. They can only step on their food to hold it in place while eating. They have a highly developed sense of smell.

The vulture’s bald head is a matter of hygiene. When the vulture is eating carrion, it often sticks its head inside the carcass. A feathery head would collect unwanted pieces of the vulture’s meal along with all the bacteria such pieces would host.

Turkey vultures do not have a voice box and thus have limited vocalization capabilities. They can only utter hisses and grunts. They usually hiss when they feel threatened. Grunts are commonly heard from hungry young, and adults in courtship.

Turkey vultures are very graceful in flight, and can soar for hours without flapping their wings. Circling vultures do not necessarily mean the presence of a dead animal; the vultures may be gaining altitude for long flights, searching for food, or playing, soaring on thermals of warm, rising air.

The turkey vulture can be found throughout the entire continental United States, north into Canada, and south into Central and South America down to Tierra del Fuego, and over to the Falkland Islands. These birds seem to do well in landscapes with a mixture of open and wooded areas, but can be found almost anywhere. They live along coastlines, in deserts, throughout plains, and even in inland tropical forests. The Turkey Vulture is gentle and non-aggressive. They roost in large community groups, breaking away to forage independently during the day.

Turkey Vultures are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance called the “horaltic pose,” which may serve to warm the body and dry the wings.

The turkey vulture has few natural predators. Interestingly, turkey vultures often vomit when approached or harassed by predators, or when handled by researchers. This behavior may have evolved as a means for vultures gorging on a carcass to off-load some weight when predators approach and the vulture has eaten too much to fly. When turkey vultures vomit they simply cough up a lump of meat that can be fresh or semi-digested and foul-smelling. The regurgitated food may in turn be eaten by the predator, which takes the free meal rather than continuing to pursue the vulture.

The turkey vulture often urinates right onto its legs. This process, known as urohydrosis, serves two very important purposes. On warm days, wetting the legs cools the vulture as the urine evaporates. In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vulture’s digestive system, which may kill any bacteria that remain on the bird’s legs from stepping in its meal.

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turkey vulture Statistics:

Body Length
Brood Size
Incubation Period
Life Span

25 - 32 inches
long and thin
72 inches
5 - 6 pounds
both parents share incubation responsibility
38 - 41 days
16 years in the wild, upwards of 30 years in captivity
not endangered - robust populations
protected - it is illegal to kill in the U.S.