Turkey Vultures

Turkey vulture © Edward Walk
© Edward Walk

Although soaring turkey vultures are now a regular sight in Massachusetts, they were rare until recent decades, when they expanded their range northward. The first confirmed breeding pair in the state was observed in 1954. They now provide their valuable cleanup services across most of the Commonwealth, consuming roadkill and other carrion.

Identification

Turkey vultures are large birds with nearly 6-foot wingspans. In flight, they look very dark, and their wings are two-toned, with a pale gray trailing edge. To distinguish turkey vultures from other soaring birds such as eagles or hawks, look for their relatively tiny heads, and note that they hold their wings above their bodies in a shallow “V”. They also have a distinctive wobbly soaring style.

Turkey vultures are named for their resemblance to wild turkeys. When you encounter perching vultures, you can see why: like turkeys, their bodies are bulky, and their small heads are featherless and bright pink-red.

Behavior

Turkey vultures sometimes overwinter in the state, but many of them migrate south. One of the earliest signs of spring is the sight of a turkey vulture soaring overhead. While the bulk of the migration begins in mid-March, you may see these birds as early as February, often in groups of two or more.

At night, turkey vultures gather together to roost. Dozens of birds may roost together.

Life Cycle

Turkey vultures generally nest on the ground in sheltered areas such as hollow logs, caves, or rock crevices. They lay two eggs directly on the flat surface. Both parents take turns incubating them during a 34-41-day period.

Once the young hatch, both parents continue to care for them. If the chicks are alone at the nest and feel threatened, they will defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating. The young fledge at nine to 10 weeks, but remain dependent upon their parents for another one to three weeks. At about 12 weeks they leave the nest area and may join a nearby communal roost.

Food

Turkey vultures specialize in eating carrion (dead animals). They have a well-developed sense of smell that they use to find food. Their heads are naked so that they can reach inside a carcass without contaminating their feathers. Turkey vultures usually feed alone. However, if a vulture sees others feeding on a carcass, it may fly down to join them.

Status

Turkey vultures are becoming more numerous in the eastern US. They likely breed throughout Massachusetts except for parts of the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, though breeding activity can be difficult to confirm because their nesting sites are remote and hard to find. Learn more in our Breeding Bird Atlas 2

Turkey Vultures & the Law

Turkey vultures are protected by federal laws under the “Migratory Bird Act of 1918,” as well as by Massachusetts state laws. It is illegal to destroy, relocate, or possess birds, their nests, or their eggs. Learn More