One of the most familiar and widely distributed members of the group is the Turkey Vulture, or Turkey Buzzard (Cathartes aura), which is found in two minor geographic races over nearly the whole of temperate and tropical America, including the West Indies,ranging south to Patagonia, and north, more or less regularly, to southern New England,New York, the Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. They are large birds, from twenty-six to some thirty-two inches in length, with an expanse of wing of about six feet, the general coloration being blackish above with a greenish and violet gloss, and uniform dull black below. The typical form (C. aura), which occurs southward from the state of Vera Cruz, Mexico, is relatively small and has the feathers of the back with narrow and poorly defined brown borders, while the color of the upper sides of the shafts of the primaries is soon bleached to old ivory or yellowish. The northern form (C. a. Septentrionalis), which is the one from northern Mexico northward, is of larger size and has the brown borders to the feathers of the upper parts more pronounced, while the upper side of the shafts of the primaries usually remains permanently dusky brown. In both the naked skin of the head is livid crimson in life. “They look their best aloft,” says Bendire, speaking of the northern race, “as their flight is exceedingly easy and graceful; while the apparent absence of all effort as they sail in stately manner overhead, in ever changing circles, and without any apparent movement of their well-shaped wings, makes them really attractive objects to watch; but let them once descend to the ground or alight on a tree, and attractiveness ceases; now they are anything but prepossessing, and it requires no effort to place them where they properly belong, ‘among the scavengers of the soil.'”
Although the Turkey Vulture feeds very largely upon carrion, and in this capacity is of great benefit as a scavenger, it is said to prefer fresh meat when this can be procured. ” The reason of their eating it when decayed,” according to Dr. Ralph, is “that they cannot kill game themselves and their bills are not strong enough to tear the tough skin of many animals until it becomes soft by decomposition.” The following account of their feeding habits is also from the pen of Dr. Ralph : ” When they find a dead animal they will not leave it until all but the bones and other hard parts has been consumed, and if it be a large one, or if it have a tough skin, they will often remain near it for days, resting by night in the trees near by. After they have eaten and sometimes they will gorge themselves until the food will run out of their mouths when they move they will, if they are not too full to fly, roost in the nearest trees until their meal is partly digested, and then commence eating again.”
There is a widespread popular belief that these birds, as well as the other members of the group, possess a wonderfully acute sense of smell which enables them to detect the presence of carrion at a great distance, and many are the tales that have been told and which in a measure seem to prove the truth of this supposed power; but, on the other hand, the opposing facts are so strong as to make it difficult to decide between them. As might be expected from dissections of the olfactory organs as made by Owen and others, their sense of smell is probably more highly developed than in most birds, but it is doubtful if it is more acute than in most human beings. Numerous experiments have been tried, not only with this species but with other of the Vultures, of concealing carrion near where they were congregated, and in no case did they find it. It would be interesting to give an account of many of these experiments, but we have only space for the following, taken from Barrows: “The rough painting of a sheep, skinned and cut open, soon brought Vultures to examine and tug at it, and although the experiment was repeated scores of times it never failed, on each fresh exposure, to attract the hungry birds. A wheelbarrow load of tempting carrion was next covered by a single sheet of thin canvas, above which bits of fresh meat were strewn. The fresh meat was soon eaten, but although the Vultures must frequently have had their bills within an eighth of an inch of the carrion beneath, they did not discover it.” On the other hand, Mr. Ridgway is strongly of the opinion that they can and do detect the presence of carrion by the sense of smell. He says, “I have repeatedly seen them attracted to a dead animal so thoroughly concealed from view that they could not possibly see it even from immediately overhead, much less from a distance.” He also relates an instance where he observed dozens of Turkey Buzzards coming “up the wind” to a field which had been newly fertilized with fish guano, undoubtedly attracted only by the odor. Their acuteness of vision is, however, beyond question, and it is upon this that they undoubtedly largely depend in securing their food. They have been known to descend from a height at which they were almost invisible to human sight to feed upon a dead snake a few inches long, that must have been discovered from this lofty position.
The Turkey Vulture deposits its eggs, usually two in number, in a hollow log or tree, among rocks or frequently on the ground. The eggs are thought by many to be the handsomest of those of any of the raptorial birds. Their ground color is generally a light creamy tint, occasionally a dull white, and they are blotched, smeared, and spotted with various shades of reddish brown, chocolate, and lavender, these markings usually predominating over the larger end.
Other Species. There are three other species in the genus with the Turkey Vulture : the Falkland Island Turkey Vulture (C. falklandicus), found in the Falkland Islands, Patagonia, and Chile, the Amazonian Turkey Vulture (C. perniger) of Guiana, Amazonia, and Peru, and the small black Brazilian species (C. urubitinga), the latter having uniform black wings and a yellow instead of reddish head. Their habits are presumably similar to those of the common species.