Saturday, April 21, 2012

Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura
Happy Earth Day Weekend Everybody! I'll be putting together a lengthier post about that later, but for now lets get to our animal. And really, what animal could be more "green" than a vulture? Nature's natural garbage men!

The Turkey Vulture is one of the New World Vultures, and one of the most widespread ones at that. They can be found throughout North and South America, with some populations migrating and others remaining year round.

Though they look an awful lot like the Old World Vultures, New Worlds actually belong to a separate family, and possibly, to a completely different Order. Like the Giant Golden Mole yesterday, New World and Old World Vultures are examples of convergent evolution, and are only distantly related. Some biologists think that the New World Vultures might actually be me closely related to Storks and Ibises than to the similar looking Raptors across the Atlantic!

You can identify a flying Turkey Vulture by looking at its movement and wing position. They typically soar on updrafts with their wings positioned in an upwards V-shape, and they very rarely flap them. The wing position, along with the the body's teetering motion, allow them to fly for long periods of time while expending very little energy.

Turkey Vulture in Flight
Turkey Vultures have excellent senses of smell, and their brain actually devotes a larger-than-normal portion to that sense. They can detect the faintest of odors, and can even find carrion that is underneath a dense tree canopy! Turkey Vultures scavenge almost exclusively, tearing at the carcasses with their sharp hooked beaks. The birds have hardy immune systems, and rarely contract diseases from their meals.

Two illnesses that these birds have been unable to avoid are DDT and Lead Poisoning. Prior to the 1980s the population was declining due to the amount of DDT found in their food. Since the DDT ban the population has been on the rise, though Lead Poisoning continues to be an issue. The Turkey Vultures will feed on carcasses that were killed by lead shot, ingesting the lead themselves. Hunting has also hurt their population in the past, as people erroneously believed that they spread diseases. Of course, the exact opposite is true- the Vultures help to stop the spread of disease by consuming the dead and rotting meat. Turkey Vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and it is now illegal to kill, take, or own one.

IUCN Status : Least Concern
Location : North and South America
Size : Body length up to 32in (81cm), Wingspan up to 72in (1.8m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Aves -- Order : Disputed
Family : Cathartidae -- Genus : Cathartes -- Species : C. aura

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