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Turkey Vulture


 Did you know that there are only 23 species of vultures in the world? All vulture species are split into 2 groups: Old World Vultures and New World Vultures. While there are many differing characteristics between these 2 groups, the biggest is their range: Old World Vultures are found in Asia, Africa and Europe while New World Vultures are found in North, Central and South America.

The only species of vulture found in Michigan is the Turkey Vulture. This vulture is large, ranging from 2 to 4 pounds with a 5.5 to 6 foot wing span. It is mostly black with a pink featherless head and neck.

All vultures:

  • Are birds of prey. This means they have sharp talons and hooked beaks for ripping meat.
  • Are “endothermic” or warm-blooded. Endothermic animals can regulate their body temperature, allowing them to live in a variety of habitats on Earth.
  • Have bald (or limited feathering on their) heads and necks. This helps the vultures stay clean while eating.
  • Are characterized by having a “wider than proportional” wingspan, allowing them soar high in the sky while looking for their meal.
  • Are diurnal. This means they hunt or spend most their time awake during the daytime.
  • Have a strong immune system which allows them to eat carrion or rotting meat.

About Lucy

Lucy was one of two turkey vulture sisters that were born in 1978 and hand raised at the Potter Park Zoo. They were later transferred to Blandford Nature Center from the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in 1996.  Since the two were hand raised, they are not afraid of people and depend on us to feed and take care of them. They would not know how to get their own food in the wild or know to avoid humans and predators. In 2013, Lucy’s sister Ethel sister passed away due to old age.

Diet

Turkey Vultures eat carrion (dead animals). They are one of the few bird species to have a sense of smell, which they use to find their stinky food.

Habitat

They can be seen flying above open country, shorelines, and roads with their wings held in a V-shape. They are not common in forested areas.

Interesting Facts

  • Turkey Vultures play an important role in our ecosystems. Their unique digestive system allows them to kill bacteria and diseases associated with their dead food, preventing diseases from spreading. Without these “buzzards” the world would be a smellier and less safe place.
  • Turkey Vultures will vomit up their food when threatened by a predator. The vomited food may distract the predator and make the vultures lighter, making it easier to fly away to safety.
  • Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, actually means “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”
  • Since Turkey Vultures are in the New World Vulture group, they lack a voice box and are only able to grunt and hiss.

Species Conservation & Management

Status of Turkey Vultures in Michigan

Turkey Vultures are very common throughout Michigan from spring up until the late fall when they migrate south to warmer areas.

Threats to Wild Turkey Vultures

Currently, there are no threats to populations of this species.  Their numbers have actually been increasing since the 1980’s.  They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and it is illegal to kill Turkey Vultures in the United States.