The most widespread vulture in North America, the turkey vulture is locally called “buzzard” in many areas. A turkey vulture standing on the ground can, at a distance, resemble a wild turkey. It is unique among our vultures in that it finds carrion by smell as well as by sight. When threatened, it defends itself by vomiting powerful stomach acids. Polytypic (4 ssp.). Length 27"; wingspan 69".
Overall, it is black with brownish tones, especially on the feather edges. Legs are dark to pinkish in color, the head unfeathered. Adult: the red skin color of the head contrasts with the ivory bill and dark feather ruff on the neck. Juvenile: the skin of the head is dark, the bill dark with a pale base. Flight: a large dark bird that flies with its wings held in a noticeable dihedral. Usually rocks side-to-side, especially in strong winds. Underneath, the silvery secondaries contrast with the black primaries and wing coverts, giving a two-toned look to the wing. The tail is relatively long.
Three subspecies are found in North America (aura, meridionalis, septentrionalis). Only a few minor differences in size and overall tone separate them.
The black vulture has a quicker, shallow flap, shorter tail, and obvious white patches at the base of the primaries on its shorter, broader wings. The zone-tailed hawk and golden eagle will mimic the wing dihedral when hunting, and dark-morph Swainson’s hawks and rough-legged hawks also can fly in a dihedral, but at closer range all have feathered heads and different wing shapes. Zone-tailed also shows banded tail and yellow cere and legs.
Hisses when threatened.
Status and Distribution
Year-round in southern United States, migrates into northern United States and Canada. Breeding: nests on the ground, using a shallow cave, hollow log, or thick vegetation. Migration: northern populations migratory, some heading to Canada. Winter: increasing numbers in snowbound states. Vagrant: to Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Newfoundland.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006