Turkey Vulture

The large nostril openings and feather color show clearly on the beautiful adult Turkey Vulture.

Reports reach us all too often of native animals, ranging from the small delicate Monarch Butterflies to nesting songbirds, having had very bad summers due largely to the terrible droughts over much of the country. However, there is one bird, judging by our frequent sightings of them, that appears to be doing quite well – the Turkey Vulture.

Its seemingly effortless soaring flight is beautiful to behold, perhaps unsurpassed by any native bird of our state. The dihedral (shallow V-shape) of its wings while in flight is an excellent field mark of this spectacular flier. Watch too for its two-toned black and gray wings

Seeing several of them making lazy circles in the sky doesn’t necessarily mean that they have found some carrion on the ground below on which to feast. They simply may be searching for a good thermal, which they will gradually ride to a higher elevation, and then they slowly glide downward until they locate another rising air current. All the while, these birds are searching for food, both with their keen sense of smell as well as with their superb eyesight. They don’t flap their wings any more than they have to and, with good air currents, may stay aloft for several hours at a time.

The first nesting record for Wisconsin was documented in the Oconto area in 1944 by biologist Carl Richter. LeRoy Lintereur found the next nest in the northeastern part of the state the following year. We had a call on Aug. 14, 1988 from friends living along Pebble Beach in northwestern Door County. They told of a large, strange bird-of-prey unable to fly, sitting on the road near their cottage.

A fledgling Turkey Vulture has a black bill and is covered in white down.

We immediately left to see and photograph the bird. You can imagine our excitement to learn that it was a young Turkey Vulture still “wrapped’ in its cottony coat of whitish down, a new nesting record for our county.

Some of the boys of neighboring families knew of the nest near the top of the bluff. The fledgling, about 15-or-more inches tall, had apparently been pushed, or fell, over the edge of the bluff and had landed near the road below. After photographing the bird we suggested that the boys capture the juvenile vulture and return it to its cave nest, which they did.

According to Sam Robbins’ excellent book Wisconsin Birdlife, the range of Turkey Vultures has been steadily moving northward in the state. They were rarely seen north of the Ohio Valley in the early 1950s. Today, they are reported from every Wisconsin county in summer. It was a Turkey Vulture captured and banded by Dan Berger in the 1970s that produced the first record for this species in Wisconsin. The bird was later recovered in British Honduras (now Belize).

This captive Turkey Vulture at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary shows it two-toned wings.

Breeding records in the state are still fairly uncommon. These huge birds with a six-foot wingspan choose very secluded nesting sites and consequently are difficult to locate and study. You would think such a monstrous bird would be easy to follow, but they aren’t. Our friend Max Martin reported a nest this past summer found in the dimly lit loft of an old, unused barn.

Once located, it takes a very dedicated ornithologist having a strong stomach and great determination to study the birds. Researchers who have worked with them claim they have been royally initiated into field ornithology. When frightened or angered, Turkey Vultures have the nasty habit of regurgitating what has be to be the most vile smelling matter imaginable.

The scientific name of Turkey Vulture is Cathartes aura. Cathartes is from a Greek word meaning cleanser, scavenger, or purifier. If “aura” means a distinctive air that characterizes a person or thing, then the vulture’s species name is well chosen, at least in the nostrils of the bird bander who works with and handles these strange creatures!

The name Turkey Vulture is well chosen because of the adult bird’s red, featherless head – like its namesake, the Turkey – being well suited to thrust into bloody carcasses of dead animals. It is thought that the bird does not attain its red head until it is at least one year or older. Young birds’ heads are blackish.

The beautiful and characteristic dihedral of a Turkey Vulture in flight.

Many members of the Animal Kingdom, ranging from the smallest bird to the largest mammals, have nostrils for an excellent reason. For example, when a Turkey Vulture’s esophagus is filled to capacity with food to be swallowed, it would soon suffocate were it not for its nostrils, which enable it to swallow and breathe at the same time. Indeed, the nostril openings in a Turkey Vulture’s upper mandible are unusually large.

Charlotte and I had the good fortune on August 2, 1994 of counting 44 of these masterful fliers at once in and along the margins of a large stone quarry in southern Door County. All displayed the red head of an adult bird. We can only guess as to why so many had congregated at one site on that day. This sight would be familiar, however, to the people of Hinckley, Ohio who eagerly await the Return of the Buzzards – or Turkey Vultures as we call them – every year on March 15. A tradition since 1957, buzzard enthusiasts from far and wide gather at Buzzard Roost in Hinckley Reservation to spot the first buzzard of the season.

These masters of the sky, its thermals, crosswinds and air currents may not appeal aesthetically to the great majority of people, but, in reality, they serve as one of nature’s most important unpaid disposal creatures of decomposing animal matter. Unquestionably, they help to reduce disease and keep our county and roadsides cleaner.

Lift your eyes to one of the greatest fliers on earth and be thankful they continue to perform some of the unpleasant but essential functions in our environment.


In the last Door to Nature, “Big Trees,” it was stated that Richard Westring and Jo Hagen’s Horsechestnut had a 15-foot diameter. This should have stated that the tree had a 15-foot circumference. We regret the error.