Turkey Vultures

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  • Topic: New World vulture, Bird, Cathartes
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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Turkey Vultures

Vultures are large birds of prey closely related to hawks and eagles. They are divided into New World vultures and Old World vultures, both belonging to the order Falconiformes. The New World vultures, in the family Cathartidae, consist of seven species in five genera. Among the New World vultures include the Cathartes aura, also known as the Turkey Vulture.

Scientists say that turkey vultures are shy, inoffensive birds. Some researchers have discovered that the bird is very helpful to the environment. Its habit of cleaning up decaying and diseased carcasses makes it a sanitary engineer par excellence, while its keen sense of smell has been pressed into service to find wasteful and dangerous gas leaks. And the vulture's unique knack for conserving energy has intrigued scientists for years.

Although the turkey vulture has a large, turkeylike body and sporty red head, it is not even distantly related to the turkey. Instead, turkey vultures- along with their cousins in the United States, the black vulture of the South and East, and the nearly extinct California condor-belong to a group of raptors called New World vultures. Chromosome analysis shows that the New World vultures are actually more closely related to storks than to the vultures of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Turkey vultures are remarkably successful birds. They range everywhere from parts of Canada and much of the United States to South America. At home in deserts, prairies and woodlands, they have even settled close to people in a number of urban and suburban areas.

Observed in flight, the turkey vulture appears black with the underside of its wings grayish or silvery, giving the birds a two-toned appearance. They characteristically hold their wings in a slight V, or dihedral, thus aiding identification. On rare occasions, they hold their wings flat and eagle-like which, if seen at a great distance, may cause the birds to resemble eagles. In flight, the turkey vulture holds it's naked head, crimson-red as adults and grayish-black as immatures, downward in contrast to eagles, which hold their heads forward.

The tail of the turkey vulture extends far beyond the rear edge of its wings. They typically rock or tilt from side to side while gliding or soaring on updrafts or circling overhead. Their occasional wingbeats are powerful and labored. Turkey vultures are large birds with wingspreads of about six feet. Their wings are long, moderatly wide, and have strongly slotted tips. Typically, the wings are held slightly above a horizontal plane when the bird is aloft. This forms a characteristic dihedral which is very useful in making correct field identification. Although turkey vultures use thermals, they are more dependant upon updrafts when migrating along mountains. The birds use the air currents skillfully and seldom exert much energy by flapping their wings.

Much of the credit for the bird's success, scientists say, belongs to its efficient use of energy. Turkey vultures are marvels of energy conservation. It seems a turkey vulture's whole life is spent trying to conserve every little calorie it gets. If there's some small way it can save burning its own body fat and tissue, it will. Like an energy-conscious homeowner, a vulture turns down its thermostat at night. During the night, a turkey vulture's body temperature drops a few degrees. The result is a savings in the vulture's energy bank. To warm up again in the morning without burning much fuel, the prehistoric-looking bird spreads its wings and soaks up all the sun it can.

Another trick performed by the turkey vulture is a behavior called urohidrosis. Like all birds, the turkey vulture has no sweat glands. To cool itself during hot spells, it frequently defecates on its own legs. The slurry of white uric acid in the feces contains mositure that cools by evaporating. The behavior, shared by other vultures and storks, is more efficient that sweating...
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