Cathartes aura Order: Accipitriformes Family: Cathartidae
With regard to their availability and suitability as ambassador animals:
- Turkey vultures can be acquired from rehab and rescue centers.
- With good training, this species can be reliable in both flighted and non-flighted situations.
- Turkey vultures are a little more sensitive to large crowds and chaos than some other species. With good desensitization they can do well with crowds and in classroom programs, however, attention should be paid to the sensitivity of the individual.
- Due to their natural history and social dynamics, vultures can be more disposed to lunging and biting if they feel threatened, they are not “easy” birds to manage and require experienced handlers.
Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
By far the most widespread of the New World vultures, the turkey vulture can be found throughout the entire United States, north into Canada along the east and west coasts, and south into central South America. These birds prefer open areas, but can be found almost anywhere. They live along coastlines, in deserts, throughout plains, and even in inland forests.
A longevity record for a wild bird was recorded by the US Geological Survey at 16 years and 8 months. The oldest known turkey vulture in human care is 33 years old and lives at the San Francisco Zoo.
Like all vultures, turkey vultures play an important role as scavengers. By consuming carcasses of deceased animals, they prevent the spread of disease. Their digestive system effectively neutralizes pathogens such as (but not limited to) cholera, botulism, rabies, polio, and anthrax.
Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information
Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
- Turkey vultures are found in a wide variety of climates and are cold tolerant below freezing temperatures without the need for supplemental heat source. Older or compromised individuals would certainly benefit from supplemental heat in temperatures below freezing, but for the most part, active healthy turkey vultures do not require additional heat considerations unless temperatures are extreme.
- This species can be successfully managed on a variety of substrates, such as pea-gravel, sand, dirt, grass.
Social Housing/Colony Management
- Turkey vultures are a gregarious species and do well (better) when housed with conspecifics rather than alone. When housing birds in groups attention should be paid to individual preference and birds should be afforded enclosure space large enough to be separate from each other, should they choose.
Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
- Multiple perching options are necessary to maintain good foot health.
- Space should meet minimum USFW standards.
- Enclosure be constructed with materials that reduce the possibility of damage to the feathers or to the bird itself (for example, bare wire mesh is less desirable than vertical bars or coated mesh).
- Flight-capable individuals need flight exercise to maintain muscle mass.
- A double door mew entrance is ideal for any flighted bird. This allows handlers to enter the enclosure safely and without incident.
Diet in the Wild
- The turkey vulture, contrary to popular belief, does not feed strictly on carrion. This bird enjoys occasional plant matter, including shoreline vegetation, pumpkin, and bits of other crops. However, plant matter is not a significant part of the diet. Extremely unaggressive and non-confrontational, the turkey vulture will not feed on live prey.
Diet under human care
- Under human care turkey vultures do well on a varied diet, including such items as mice, rats, rabbit, chicks, quail, fish, beef heart and liver, commercial bird of prey diet.
- Dietary amounts will vary by individual. Larger and more active individuals requiring higher caloric intake than smaller or inactive individuals. Diet amounts required will also vary seasonally. Understanding the individual requirements of your bird for optimal weight and health should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
- Provision of whole prey on occasion is valuable for both enrichment and beak maintenance.
Enrichment & Training
Behavioral Relevant Information
- Vultures can be playful. They also appear to gain some intrinsic satisfaction from the act of ripping and tearing.
- Changing perches within their habitat.
- Addition of browse.
- Puzzle feeders work well as do any objects they can tug or carry such as browse. They will ingest random objects so use care when choosing enrichment items.
- Daily enrichment is recommended.
Other Enrichment Resources
- AZA’s Raptor TAG has a comprehensive list of raptor-appropriate enrichment as well as other suggestions on raptor enrichment programs on their website.
- Voluntary step-up to glove
- Voluntary loading into crate
- Voluntary scale
- A-B flights
- Walking with trainers
- Calm behavior on glove
Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement
- This species takes well to positive reinforcement training using its daily diet to reinforce behavior.
- Using food and/or weight management as part of a good behavioral management program facilitates training by creating a learning environment in which vultures want to participate. Training strategies that involve reducing food offered to the point of compromising the health of the bird are considered unacceptable. Food management and weight management practices that are safe for the bird and trainers, provide for the health and welfare of the bird, and facilitate training are recommended.
- Food and or weight management should be done with an understanding of the process and considerations. The decision to use weight management should not be taken lightly nor undertaken at all by staff who do not have a comprehensive understanding of managing weight and diet.
Colony or Breeding Management
Threats and Conservation Status
- While turkey vulture populations remain stable throughout their range, vultures in general are the most imperiled group of birds on the planet with more than 70% of species threatened, endangered, or critically endangered.
- While the digestive system of vultures is highly resistant to bacteria and viruses, they are extremely susceptible to poisons and toxins. One of the leading killers of vultures is accidental or intentional poisoning. Sharing information aimed to reduce toxins in their environment (such as switching from lead ammunition and not using rodent bait) are valuable ways to help wild vultures.
- Prejudices against turkey vultures still persist among many who wrongly believe that they harm wildlife or present major threats to domestic animals. Biological studies have documented their ecological importance as major controls on the spread of disease. Turkey vultures are often associated with black vultures and inaccurately accused of preying on newborn livestock. There is no evidence of this ever having occurred with this species, and no verifiable evidence that it occurs with black vultures either.
Interesting Natural History Information
Its primary form of defense is vomiting. The birds do not “projectile vomit” as many would claim. They simply cough up a lump of semi-digested meat. This foul-smelling substance deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest and can sting if it is gotten in the eyes.
Turkey vultures also often directs its urine right onto its legs. This serves two very important purposes. In the summertime, wetting the legs cools the vulture as the urine evaporates. (The vulture cannot sweat like us.) In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vulture’s digestive system, which kill any bacteria that may remain on the bird’s legs from stepping in its meal.
Turkey vultures fly with their wings in a dihedral (V-shape). They are most graceful in flight, and can soar for hours at high altitudes without ever flapping their wings. Vultures launch themselves from their perches only after the morning air has warmed. Then they circle upward, searching for pockets of rising warm air, or thermals. Once they have secured a thermal, they dive across the sky at speeds near 60 miles per hour, losing altitude until they reach another thermal. All of this is done without needing to flap the wings often. The takeoffs are quite laborious, however, and the birds often fall victim to predators and cars when trying to gain flight.
Turkey vultures, like most other vultures, have very few 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.
Did you know…
- Turkey vultures are sometimes mistakenly called buzzards. Buzzards are a type of hawk.
- The turkey vulture is one of the only birds in North America known to have a sense of smell. This vulture relies both on its keen eyesight and powerful nose to search out food.
- Contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily indicate the presence of a dead animal. Circling vultures may be gaining altitude for long flights, searching for food, or playing. American vultures are not known to circle a dying animal.
- Turkey vultures are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance. The stance is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.
- A group of vultures is called a “venue.” Vultures circling in the area are called a “kettle.”
Handling & Presentation Tips
- This species may be presented on glove, on perch, or in free-flight demonstrations.
- Due to their activity budget and the fact that their feet pose no safety risk to handlers (or other animals) like those of raptors traditionally managed with falconry equipment (hawks, eagles, falcons, owls), the use of falconry equipment is neither recommended nor necessary when handling turkey vultures.
- Their natural behavior does not lend to tethering.
Pubic Contact and Interaction Guidelines
- Public contact with this species is not advisable.
- Touching is not advisable.
- Transport box suggestions: Varikennel.
- A couple things to keep in mind, crates should not be carried by the handle, but rather using two hands on either side of the crate and supporting it adequately. Swinging transport crates around and or moving them on a bumpy cart may create negative association for the bird, due to an uncomfortable ride and decrease the likelihood that the bird will go in the box on future occasions. If the perch is to low for the bird, their tail feathers may get painted with fecal matter which does not look good on presentation. Varikennel you are able to adjust the height of the perch.
- This species can be trained to voluntarily enter a crate either from the glove or directly from their enclosure. Continuous reinforcement of voluntary crate behaviors as well as dedication to their comfort and safety while in the crate is important to maintaining solid and reliable crate behavior.
- Being natural inhabitants of a variety of climates, turkey vultures are typically able to be used in a wide variety of temperatures. When transporting and using on programs, attention should be paid to the comfort of the individual and any signs of heat distress responded to accordingly.
- Turkey vultures are frequently available through rehabilitation organizations
- Raptor Taxon Advisory G
- IAATE Position Statements
- Food Management and Weight Management 2019
- Tethering and the Use of Jesses 2019
- EAZA Falconiformes TAG: Husbandry and Management Guidelines for Demonstration Birds
Contributors and Citations
- The Philadelphia Zoo.
- Tracy Aviary
Comments from the Rating System
Top Photo Credit: credit the “header” photo of the species