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What is a Turkey Vulture?

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  • Written By: Vanessa Harvey
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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A turkey vulture is a large bird of prey that inhabits the deserts, ranch lands and open country of North America. It also is seen along roadsides because carrion, which comprises the bulk of its diet, is often plentiful in such areas. Cathartes aura is the scientific name of the turkey vulture, and common names by which it is known include a turkey buzzard, carrion crow, John crow and red-necked buzzard. This bird's resemblance to the common turkey is how it earned its name. Brown-black lining feathers, light gray flight feathers, yellow feet, a red head and a white bill describe the physical appearance of the fully matured turkey vulture, which is said to be "bald" because there are practically no feathers on its red head.

Males and females grow to approximately 32 inches (81.28 cm) in length, grow 3-4 pounds (1.36-1.81 kg) in weight and can reach a wing span of up to 6 feet (1.83 m). Although it is not known exactly how long these birds can live, it is known that they can live for at least 16 years. They tend to be silent most of the time, but they are capable of making a groaning or hissing sound. Being a vulture, they share some common characteristics of all species of vulture, such as feeding primarily on dead and decaying flesh. This behavior is almost always what causes many people to greatly dislike all vultures in general.

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It should be remembered that vultures play a vital role in keeping Earth clean by feeding on carrion. Cathartes, part of its scientific name, means "purifying." Dead and decaying flesh presents a very high health risk to most other animals, a risk that would be even greater were it not for vultures who have a highly complex and very special immunity against disease caused by carrion. The turkey vulture occasionally will feed on live food such as insects and fish and it also has been known to attack weak, sickly, injured and dying animals. Some have even been observed eating coconuts and pumpkins.

The turkey vulture does not build a nest for its young; rather one to three eggs that are blotched in appearance are laid in the hollows of cliffs, among natural rock formations on the ground and in logs. Young offspring are nourished on regurgitated food and live approximately 10 weeks before flying away. It is not known whether a turkey vulture relies on its sense of smell or sight to locate carrion. Some expters believe that it uses both sense of smell and sight.

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