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Turkey Vulture

Clean-up Crew Has Arrived

New England’s skies have been devoid of the wheeling antics of our most prominent avian scavenger, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) since last October.  The first migrants are returning, and just in time to recycle winter’s roadkills such as the raccoon carcass pictured.

Turkey Vultures have keen vision and road-killed animals are fairly easy to spot, but scientists have wondered for many years how they locate carrion hidden from view, such as those within forests.  It’s been determined that they do so primarily with their highly developed sense of smell. Turkey Vultures have an extremely large olfactory bulb—the area of the brain responsible for processing odors.  When it comes to detecting food by smell alone, the Turkey Vulture has the most finely-attuned sense of smell among nearly all birds and is known to be able to smell carrion from over a mile away.

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Turkey Vultures Preening

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Turkey Vultures spend much of their day gliding and soaring with their wings out in a dihedral position, scavenging for carrion. This requires each of their wing feathers to be aligned in the most optimum position relative to its adjacent feathers and the bird’s body shape. In order to achieve this alignment (as well as dust, dirt and parasite removal and feather-oiling) Turkey Vultures typically spend two to three hours a day preening, mostly nibbling at the base of feathers, but also running their bill along the shaft of individual feathers from the base to the tip.

Typically in the morning they preen at their roost or in a communal post-roosting area on perches exposed to the sun before heading out to forage. Shortly before sunset they do the same in reverse, landing in an exposed pre-roosting perch site within half a mile of their roost site and engage in maintenance activities before bedding down at their roost site for the night.

 Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to and click on the yellow “donate” button.