Turkey Vulture

Photo of a turkey vulture in flight
Scientific Name
Cathartes aura
Cathartidae (New World vultures) in the order Cathartiformes

The turkey vulture is a large-bodied bird with blackish plumage and a small, red, naked head (juveniles have black heads). The beak is short, hooked and whitish. The legs and feet are pink but often stained white. From below, the wings appear black with the trailing half of the wing gray or silvery. When soaring, turkey vultures hold their wings in a V position (not flattened horizontally). Turkey vultures frequently tilt from side to side as they soar.

Similar species: Black vultures, common in the southeastern United States, are expanding their range northward, and Missouri sightings of them are increasing. Note their black head, shorter tail, and (seen from below) a white patch near the ends of the wings. When they soar, their wings are held nearly horizontal, and they frequently alternate between a series of three to four flaps and soaring.


Length: 27 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan: 70 inches.

Where To Find
image of Turkey Vulture Distribution Map

Common migrant and summer resident statewide, although less common in the southeastern part of the state. They are becoming locally common in the southern half of Missouri during the winter months.

Turkey vultures are especially fond of bluffs, where they can catch rising warm air currents upon which to soar. Adults have very few natural predators; adverse factors include collisions with automobiles as they feed on road-killed carrion.

Turkey vultures are highly specialized carrion feeders, locating their food by smell as well as by sight. They are often attracted to road-killed carcasses.

Common migrant; common summer resident (rare breeder, or absent in summer, in unforested parts of Mississippi Lowlands).

Life Cycle

Turkey vultures roost in large colonies but forage individually. Roosts are generally in large, bare trees. Breeding is in spring and involves courtship displays of several individuals. Turkey vultures lay eggs in caves, cliffs, crevices, hollow trees or brushy thickets. There are usually 2 chicks per clutch and little in the way of a nest. The helpless young hatch in 30–40 days and are fed by the parents for 10–11 weeks. Families stay together until fall.

These remarkable birds impress us with their soaring flight and help clean up the natural areas we enjoy. Contrary to the beliefs of some, turkey vultures do not kill live animals and present no danger to livestock.

As scavengers, turkey vultures perform a valuable service by cleaning up the woods, grasslands and even roadsides. Black vultures often rely on turkey vultures’ keen sense of smell to locate the carrion upon which they both feed.

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Similar Species

Where to See Species

White Ranch Conservation Area is located in Howell County, approximately 11 miles south of West Plains. White Ranch is the local name for a region of land previously owned by Harry White.
Chesapeake Fish Hatchery is one of four warm water fish hatcheries ran by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
In 1924 and 1925, the Missouri State Park system purchased 573 acres of land, including Bennett Spring and the hatchery. This area formed the nucleus of today's Bennett Spring State Park.
Although this conservation area is accessible to the public, its primary purpose is to house the Mtn View fire tower used by MDC staff to detect wildfires in this portion of the county.
Montauk Tower Site is home to one of three fire towers in Dent County  once used by the Department of Conservation to locate fires in Dent and surrounding counties.
About Birds in Missouri

About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.