The Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, also known in North America as the Turkey Buzzard (or just “buzzard”), is a bird found throughout most of the Americas. One of three species in the genus Cathartes, in the family Cathartidae, it is the most common of the New World vultures, ranging from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. It inhabits a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, shrublands, pastures, and deserts.
The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and feeds almost exclusively on carrion. It finds its meals using its sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. In flight, it uses thermals to move through the air, flapping its wings infrequently. It roosts in large community groups. Lacking a syrinx—the vocal organ of birds—its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses. It nests in caves, hollow trees, or thickets, generally raising two chicks each year, which it feeds by regurgitation. It has very few natural predators. In the United States of America, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
With a wingspan of 173–183 cm (68–72 in) and an average weight of 1.4 kg (3.1 lb), the Turkey Vulture is a large bird. It has dark brown to black plumage, a featherless, purplish-red head and neck, and a short, hooked, ivory-colored beak.
The Turkey Vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult’s bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male Wild Turkey, while the name “vulture” is derived from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer” and is a reference to its feeding habits.