The size and coloration of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) might cause you to mistake them for wild turkeys at a distance, but the likeness ends there. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) forage on the ground, prefer running to flying to dodge trouble, and do not migrate. Turkey vultures are consummate fliers, drifting effortlessly on air currents that at times carry them thousands of feet above the treetops as they forage for carrion and other foods. Most U.S. turkey vultures migrate in an annual cycle that takes some from as far north as southern Canada to destinations as far south as southernmost South America.
Migration and Location
Large flocks of Turkey vultures fly, roost and raise their young throughout North America during the warm months. Many turkey vultures are year-round residents of South America, Central America and Mexico. Only the groups that live in the Southeastern United States are year-round North American residents, however. Groups that summer in the western and northern states and southern Canada typically migrate south of the southern U.S. border in the fall of each year, drifting right past their stay-at-home relatives. They seldom even stop for lunch as they head for points that may be far south of the border.
Northern Turkey Vulture Migration
The turkey vultures that summer in northern and western North America begin congregating in August in preparation for the southward journey. Studies of turkey vultures that summer in the Canadian province of British Columbia have found that many of them migrate to wintering grounds in Venezuela. These flocks commence their migrations in early September, traveling in groups of up to 400. Other vulture species, such as black vultures, may join these groups for the journey. The migrating turkey vultures return in the spring to their flock's favored roost in the north.
Turkey vultures do not fly in the wee hours of the morning, and they're settled on their roosts before sunset. Their effortless, drifting flight, notable for the absence of wing movement, relies on catching thermals, which are rising pockets of sun-heated air. Many birds employ thermals to carry them higher while flying, but turkey vultures are experts at riding the thermals. They avoid flight early in the day because thermals only begin forming once the sun is up.
Fasting During Migration
Migrating turkey vultures seldom stop to eat, depending instead on their fat reserves. They are capable of covering around 200 miles per day in their drifting flight. They're not searching for food when they migrate, and opportunities to take a meal would be sheer chance. While turkey vultures have a reputation for eating decaying carrion, they tend to avoid it unless there's nothing else to scavenge, preferring fresh meat.
Because turkey vultures depend on thermals for transportation, they avoid open water, where thermals don't form very well. They and other migrating birds instead follow routes that carry them over landscapes that provide optimal conditions for catching and riding the thermals. These migratory pathways tend to hug the coasts and mountains. This avoidance of open water creates congested migration routes at certain times of the year, and one result is some great places to view the large migrations of turkey vultures and other birds that perpetually chase summer.
One Migration Path
As summer turns toward fall on Vancouver Island in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Turkey vultures who have summered in and north of the area congregate on the island's southern point, forming groups of up to 400 birds. The turkey vultures ride the thermals over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Peninsula of western Washington state, then move southward to California and on to their destinations in South America.
- Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: Turkey Vulture
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Turkey Vulture
- BirdWeb: Turkey Vulture
- The Turkey Vulture Society: Turkey Vulture Facts
- University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Cathartes aura
- National Audubon Society Birds: Turkey Vulture
- Audubon Society of Portland: Turkey Vulture
- HawkWatch International: Turkey Vulture
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