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12.5: Cathartes aura: Turkey Vulture

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Common Name

  • Turkey Vulture
  • Turkey Buzzard
  • Buzzard
  • Johns Crow
  • Carrion Crow


The turkey vulture’s length is 2- 2.7 ft., and its weight is 1.8 - 5.1lb. It’s is color ranges from black with some or no brown with silver under the flight feathers. In flight its wings are angled a slight V shape. Up close, it has an ivory-colored beak, its head is bald-red and may have a few feathers on its head (around the eyes, nose, etc). The turkey vulture’s eggs are white with spots from red to brown to black. Some spots may be clustered some spread out. Chicks are white and fluffy with a beak and head that are black. It will gain color and useful feathers as it ages. Females and males look alike.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Incertae sedis
  • Family: Cathartidae
  • Genus: Cathartes
  • Species: Cathartes aura


Turkey vultures live in North, Central and South America. They live in forests (rarely), coastlines, deserts, grasslands, and savannas. It only comes inland in summer, and it goes to Canada during mating season ( March to April-May).

Cell Biology

Turkey vultures have eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotic cells have many organelles ( parts in a cell that are like tiny organs). One organelle is the mitochondria, which makes energy for the cell. Another organelle is the ribosome, which makes protein. The nucleus, which is one of the most important organelles in a cell, is where the DNA is. The endoplasmic reticulum transports proteins. Mitosis is when the cells divide either to grow or for cell repair. Meiosis is where the cells divide for reproductive purposes to make sperm and eggs, cells with only half of the chromosomes of the original cell.


Turkey vultures evolved from the ancient bird called Teratornis merriami. All birds evolved from a dinosaur that lived in the late Jurassic called Archeopteryx. Archaeopteryx had the flight feathers of a bird, but it was missing the correct collar bone for flight. The close relative Microraptor was able to fly with not just its arms, but also its legs.


The turkey vulture’s prey is mainly carrion, but it will rarely kill small animals and will eat fruit. The turkey vulture is threatened by humans (traps, power lines, poachers). Great horned owls and raccoons will kill young or eat eggs. The turkey vulture cleans up decaying animals, so disease does not spread.

Turkey vultures lay 1-3 eggs in a cave or hollow tree. They do not build nests or rarely do. The eggs take about 30-40 days to hatch. The parents will feed and take care of the young for 70-80 days, and independence comes after 80-90 days. Two out of three of the young will most likely survive to adulthood. Turkey vultures can live up to 17 years in the wild and about 20 years in captivity.

Anatomy and Physiology

Birds have a four-chambered heart. A crop is a sack in the throat that carries food for young and for a stage of digestion and for food storage. A gizzard is basically a stomach and a primary grinding stage for digestion. They may have stones in them called gastroliths. It also has intestines, eight different air sacs for lots of air, and a vent (where waste leaves the body).

Of course all birds have feathers, but most people don’t know how the feather is shaped and created. The five types of feathers are contour feathers (the flight feathers), down feathers (for insulation), semi-plumes (between contour and down feathers), bristles (located on head to protect objects to get in eyes and nostrils), and filoplumes. All feathers are made from the follicles in the bird’s skin. The feathers have two main parts, the quill or rachis (the spine of the feather), and the vane (all the fine, hair-like strands). At each end of the larger barb are smaller barbs (barbules) that weave together for a tight fit. At each end of the barbules are hooks that keep the feather from falling apart.

Vultures have bald heads so that meat does not stick to the head. From the side view of a turkey vulture, you can see through nose (nostrils), which means that it’s well developed, which is not common for birds.


The turkey vulture roosts in the morning alone or with other vultures in large or minimal numbers. When it’s gliding, the turkey vulture’s wings are angled in a slight V shape. With its sensitive nose (which is not common among most birds) it finds it’s food. Since the turkey vulture can’t really hunt (or seldom does), it smells for carrion (decomposing carcasses). When it finds a carcass, it will land and start to eat it. If the animal that killed the prey is still eating the kill, the turkey vulture will wait its turn. The turkey vulture is often evicted from a kill by black vultures and other birds and animals. It communicates with grunts and hisses and bark-like calls.




  • Natalie Moller

Supervising Faculty

  • Amy Huff Shah


  • Museum School, San Diego, California


  • Published prior to review.

Edit History

  • Created: April 5, 2013
  • Version 1.0 submitted to CK-12: July 11, 2013
  • CK-12 edits: in progress


  • Middle School (grades 6-8)

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Date Created:
Jul 18, 2013
Last Modified:
Jan 30, 2016
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