The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a conspicuous bird of prey across most of North America. They can be seen throughout the year in the Southeast but are spring and summer breeding visitors to the rest of the Lower 48 states and southern Canada.
These soaring vultures might be a common sighting across the country, but few birdwatchers will have seen their nests. So where exactly do Turkey Vultures nest, and how do they raise their chicks?
Turkey Vultures are not known for their nest-building abilities. These birds select cavities and other secluded areas with a comfortable microclimate to lay their eggs. The site itself is rarely modified, and the female simply lays her eggs on the bare ground of the nest site.
Turkey Vultures are doting parents, however, and both mother and father will work together to raise their chicks, a task that will take several months, all told.
We rarely see Turkey Vulture nests because these birds prefer to select hidden nest sites far from human disturbance. They rarely nest in backyards or nest boxes, although they occasionally nest in human-made structures like abandoned buildings and chimneys.
This article covers the nesting habits of the Turkey Vulture. Read along to learn where, when, and how these unique birds raise a new generation each year.
Turkey Vultures nest in secluded areas, away from disturbances, like humans
Turkey Vultures usually lay their eggs in dark and sheltered cavities, far from human activity. Birdwatchers may be surprised by the range of pretty unusual places these birds choose to raise their chicks, although they will occasionally use more regular sites like the abandoned platform nests of other large birds.
Turkey Vultures usually nest in the following places:
Continue reading to learn more about the nest of the Turkey Vulture.
Turkey Vulture nests don’t look like much at all. In fact, once the site is selected, the female bird will simply lay her eggs directly on the ground, whether it is dirt, wood, or leaf litter. Turkey Vulture parents remove most of the broken eggshells once the eggs have hatched, although fragments and feathers will remain to indicate that these birds use the site to raise their chicks.
Turkey Vulture nest with two eggs inside
The size of the Turkey Vulture nest usually depends on the size of the cavity, crevice, or space they are nesting in. They are known to use vertical cavities in trees with a trunk diameter of just 3 feet (0.9 m), which is pretty cozy when you consider their 6-foot (1.8 m) wingspan.
Turkey Vultures usually lay their eggs in the spring and will have completed nesting by the start of fall. In the south, they lay their eggs in late winter and will have finished nesting by early summer.
A pair of Turkey Buzzards
Turkey Vultures are attentive parents, and ensuring the survival of their young takes up a healthy chunk of their year. The eggs, which usually hatch a day apart, can take anything from 28-41 days to hatch. Baby Turkey Vultures are born blind and helpless and can take 12 weeks to become fully independent. All in all, the nesting process takes around four months, which is a pretty substantial portion of the year.
Turkey Vultures do not build nests. They usually do not prepare the nest site in any way, although a depression may form over time from the movements of the incubating parents and the chicks. They may dig a shallow scrape and arrange some materials at the nest site in some cases, however.
Turkey Vulture in flight over Lake Cachuma, California
Baby Turkey Vultures develop relatively slowly. They will make their first attempts at flight about two months after hatching and will make their first extended flights about two weeks later. The young birds will spend the next few weeks in the vicinity of the nest being fed by their parents, eventually becoming fully independent by about three months old.
Young Turkey Vulture chick in the nest
Turkey Vultures lay a single brood of one to three eggs, although most clutches consist of two eggs. They will lay a second clutch in an alternate nest site if the first brood fails.
Turkey Vultures in the United States are migratory and monogamous, and some pairs certainly do return to nest in the same place every year. Good nest sites can be used for over a decade or more, although it is not always clear whether the same pair use the nest each year.
Turkey Vulture perched on a wooden post
Turkey Vultures lay one to three (usually two) large and uniquely patterned eggs. Most eggs are matte with a cream-white ground color and variable darker markings in brown or purple, although some eggs are plain.
Most eggs measure 2.5 to 3 inches (65 - 75 mm) in length and 1.8 to 2 inches (45 - 50 mm) in diameter. The average egg weighs about 2.8 ounces (80 g), which is larger than a jumbo chicken egg.
Turkey Vultures lay their eggs at different times of the year across their wide distribution. The timing generally depends on latitude, with egg laying occurring as early as February in the south of the USA or as late as May in the north.
Close up portrait of a Turkey Vulture
Both male and female Turkey Vultures incubate their eggs. The parents spend about equal time on this duty and usually switch over in the morning between about 08:00 a.m. and 09:30 a.m. Both parents continue taking turns to sit on the hatched chicks throughout the day and night for the first five days.
Turkey Vultures do not readily abandon their nests, and these large birds are not aggressive towards humans when disturbed. Instead, they will play dead, hiss, vomit, or fly off. Birds that do flee from their nests usually fly around in the immediate area until the threat has passed.
Close up of a Turkey Vulture in flight
Turkey Vultures often nest in natural tree cavities. The tree species does not appear to be important, but they do select trees with large, deep cavities, where their eggs might be laid as much as thirteen feet (4 m) below the entrance to the hollow.
Turkey Vultures are known to nest in the following trees:
Turkey Vultures do nest on the ground from time to time. The site could be in a dense thicket, or more commonly, in or under a hollow fallen log.
Juvenile Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vultures do not usually nest in backyards. In fact, these birds prefer to nest far away from human disturbance. They do nest in buildings from time to time, however, especially in abandoned structures and quiet barns.
One of the Turkey Vulture parents will spend the night incubating the eggs on the nest. The off-duty partner usually sleeps nearby in a large bare tree, often at a communal roost with other Turkey Vultures.
Turkey Vultures do not usually use nest boxes. Theoretically, however, a suitably large cavity-style nest box could be used if placed at an appropriate site.
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