The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), or turkey buzzard, is a familiar sight across much of North America. They breed as far north as Southern Canada and range all the way to the southern tip of South America. These birds are often seen rocking from side to side as they soar effortlessly while looking for a meal. Birdwatchers might be puzzled by the disappearance of these birds at certain times, and the sudden increase at other times.
Depending on which population they are part of, turkey vultures can be resident, nomadic, partly migratory, or long-distance migrants. Turkey vultures are resident or only partly migratory in the south and east of The United States. Populations in the North and west of the United States are long-distance migrants, however, that fly as far south as Colombia and Ecuador.
Migrant birds may spend the winter mixing with resident birds or ‘leapfrog’ over other migratory populations to avoid overpopulating an area. Read on to learn more about the migration habits of the unique and distinctive turkey vulture.
Turkey Vulture migration depends on the location
Turkey vultures are migratory in the west and north of their range where winter temperatures and conditions are unsuitable for year-round residency. In the south of the United States, and through Central America and much of South America, turkey vultures are resident or only partly migratory.
Continue reading to learn more about how, when, and why turkey vultures migrate
Turkey vultures are able to migrate with minimal effort by using thermal energy to provide lift. In this way, they can travel long distances by soaring and gliding, without needing to propel themselves by flapping. The updrafts they use develop on warm, sunny days and are most pronounced along ridgelines, shorelines, and other geological features.
Turkey vultures avoid migrating early in the morning or on rainy or overcast days when thermals aren’t available.
Studies have shown that their heart rate remains surprisingly low in flight, indicating that this means of flight uses very little energy. Turkey vultures fly at various heights, sometimes rising to nearly 20,000 feet (6,000m) to pass above storm systems, and they avoid flying over large bodies of water.
Turkey Vultures use updrafts to minimise effort
Turkey vultures migrate in the fall to spend the winter in warm subtropical and tropical areas. They return the following spring. These birds tend to return earlier than most other migrants, often beginning their northward migration as early as February.
Turkey vultures migrate to avoid challenging environmental conditions and resource limitations. Birds require more energy to maintain their body temperature when it is cold. Food resources become scarcer in the winter, forcing turkey vultures to move southwards where it is easier to survive.
Turkey vultures are scavengers that feed on the carcasses of a variety of animals. Many of their potential food sources are absent in the winter because other birds migrate south for the winter, and reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals hibernate during these cold months.
A perched Turkey Vulture sunning the wings
Turkey vultures that breed in the south of the United States are resident but birds that live further north become increasingly migratory. Interestingly, turkey vultures that breed in the far north migrate further south than individuals that breed in the south. They effectively leapfrog over their southern neighbors who are only partial migrants.
Turkey vultures are migratory from most states in the USA. They are only residents in the southeast and the extreme south and southwest. Turkey vultures migrate from the following states, as well as from the states to the north of them.
A pair of Turkey Vultures perched on a rock at Point Lobos State Park, California
Turkey vultures occupy a variety of habitats during the breeding and non-breeding season. Populations that breed in the west of the United States are long-distance migrants that travel south through Mexico and Central America to overwinter as far south as Ecuador. Eastern populations do not migrate nearly as far, usually only migrating as far south as Florida and other southeastern states.
The amount of time spent in migration varies depending on the distances involved but one study suggests turkey vulture migrations take four to ten weeks to complete. The birds can travel over 100 miles (160 km) each day and at speeds of over 30 miles per hour (50 km/h) while on migration.
Turkey Vultures can take up to 10 weeks to complete their migration
Turkey vultures are not able to complete their migration without resting, but they do not stop for long periods of time. They generally do not feed while on migration but will drink along the way. Turkey vultures roost each night before continuing on their migration the following day.
Turkey vultures usually migrate in small groups that are often known as kettles. In the fall when the birds are migrating south, they can become concentrated where the landmass narrows in central America, creating high densities of individuals numbering in the thousands.
A small flock of migrating Turkey Vultures
Turkey vultures are resident or only partially migratory across most of their worldwide distribution. Turkey vultures that breed in the north of their range are migratory, and populations from the west undertake lengthy annual migrations.
In fact, the western race of turkey vultures that breeds in the central and western, and northwestern states of the USA are long-distance migrants that travel as far south as Colombia in the equatorial region of South America.
Migratory turkey vultures from the western United States spend the winter in Central and South America. Turkey vultures that migrate from the northeast do not migrate quite as far, traveling south to overwinter in Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, and further to the southeast.
Turkey vultures may return to the north earlier than many other migrants, sometimes arriving as early as February or March.
Turkey Vultures are also known as Turkey Buzzards
Turkey vultures breed throughout much of the United States and across Southern Canada during the spring and summer months. By the start of summer, most eggs will begin hatching, and the parents will remain to provide care for a further two to three months.
Turkey vultures that spend the summer months in the north of their range begin their southward migration in the fall. They may begin their migration as early as late August. Depending on how mild the weather is, some birds may begin migrating as late as November, however.
A perched Turkey Vulture about to take off
Turkey vultures mate for life and studies on tagged individuals have shown that at least some pairs return to the same nest site repeatedly for many years. Other individuals have been known to use more than one regular nest site, alternating or using one site for consecutive years before switching to the other.
Turkey vultures migrate during the day. They are able to save energy by soaring with warm, rising air. This technique is only effective during the day, however. Turkey vultures are not forced to fly overnight because they generally avoid long-distance water crossings.
Turkey vultures from the northern and western parts of the United States are migratory and travel south to avoid the harsh conditions of winter.
Turkey vultures begin their southwards migration between August and November, depending on how far north they spent the summer and the weather conditions in the area. They will begin their return trip from as early as February, depending on how far south they spent the winter.
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