Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 28 inches long, wingspan 69 inches

Ungainly on the ground, these birds are very beautiful in flight, soaring and gliding without much wing movement at all. Often four or five will be seen in the sky circling over a feeding site. See also Black Vulture.

Soaring Turkey Vulture, USFWS photo by Lee Karney

Turkey Vulture in flight, USFWS photo by Lee Karney

Turkey Vultures are very large (28-30") scavengers. Turkey VultureKnown as "buzzards" in the Old West, these birds are dark brown or black with bare purplish-red skin around the head and neck. A strong, hooked, yellow beak helps in consuming their primary food which consists of dead animals. Their weak talons are not well suited for grappling with live prey. These birds are often seen on country roads where they quickly clean up the carcasses of rabbits, hares and other small animals that have been killed by automobiles. Unlike many birds, Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell, which enables them to find carrion concealed in brush or vegetation. They commonly find carcasses within a day or two of death. Vultures do not build nests, but lay their eggs in a sheltered spot; cliff ledge or cave, hollow log, or abandoned building. Many of the birds observed in Arizona in the summer are non-breeders since this species does not reach sexual maturity until about five years of age. Flocks often roost together at night. This species is considered stable in our state and there are no immediate concerns of extinction.

Turkey Vultures, Organ Pipe Cactus N.M.

Photo above: National Park Service, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Vulture in flight

Vulture in Flight


Alderfer, Jonathan (ed.). Field Guide to Birds: Arizona and New Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. This handy, pocket-size (4x6) guide includes most of the birds you're likely to see in Arizona. In addition to a photo, it includes information about behavior, habitat and specific local sites where you are likely to find the bird.

Corman, Troy E. and Cathryn Wise-Gervais (eds.) Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.