Return to Main Page   Dakota Birder Blog    

Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura

Length: 26 to 32 inches Wingspan: 68 to 72 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: Two-toned underwing, with dark wing-linings and white flight feathers, bare reddish head.

Turkey Vulture - Cathartes auraThe Turkey Vulture is a carrion feeder most often seen in flight, soaring on thermals as it searches for food, rarely needing to flap its wings.   They often congregate and forage around highways where roadkills are frequent, and can often been seen flapping away from a roadkill carcass upon a car's approach, only to return when the car has passed the delicious meal.  They use a very strong sense of smell to locate carrion.


Turkey Vultures can be found in a very wide variety of open and semi-open habitats. They avoid dense unbroken forest, and prefer nesting and roosting sites within a few miles of foraging sites. 


The diet of a Turkey Vulture consists almost exclusively on carrion, feeding primarily on mammals, but they're not picky, and will forage on any dead creature they come across. They're not equipped for hunting, and unlike their cousins the Black Vulture, they never attack live prey.


Turkey Vultures are most often seen soaring over open or semi-open country in search of carrion.  Carrion may be found by either sight or smell.  They are sometimes seen on a perch with their wings spread, which is thought to be either for thermoregulatory control, or to dry the wings.


May through July. The nest of a Turkey Vulture is usually just a site on a rocky ledge, a cliff, a hollow in a tree, or sometimes in or on a man-made object like a building or tower.  No formal nest is built on the site, other than sometimes a few bits of debris.  The female usually lays 2 eggs, and both parents help to incubate them.  When the eggs hatch, both parents help to feed the young by regurgitation.  The young fledge after about 10 weeks.


Generally silent, as Turkey Vultures don't have the physiology to make vocalizations like most birds. On carcasses a hissing sound is sometimes heard.


Permanent resident in much of the southeastern U.S., but northern populations migrate as far as South America in the fall.

Interactive eBird map:

 Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Turkey Vulture sightings

Similar Species:

If seen well, Turkey Vultures have a unique appearance, but in flight or from a distance, Turkey Vultures could potentially be confused with the following species:

Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus Bald Eagle 39 - Haliaeetus leucocephalus Zone-tailed Hawk - Buteo albonotatus
Black Vulture Black Vulture Bald Eagle (immature) Zone-tailed Hawk


Will attend feeders for deer carcass and assorted roadkill (Just kidding!!)


Systematic surveys in have shown modest increases in numbers over the last few decades. They are found across a very broad geographic area, and are common in parts of that range. Overall populations are not threatened, and the IUCN lists the Turkey Vulture as a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

May 19th, 2016 - Lincoln County, South Dakota - Terry L. Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Turkey Vulture photos.


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Turkey Vulture - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common migrant and summer resident throughout the state.

Additional Turkey Vulture Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Turkey Vulture 1 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 2 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 3 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 4 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 5 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 6 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 7 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 8 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 9 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 10 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 11 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 12 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 13 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 12 - Cathartes auraTurkey Vulture 13 - Cathartes aura