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THE OUTDOORS DIGEST | FIELD GUIDE

Turkey vulture

September 21, 2004|DAVID LUKAS

Turkey Vulture

[ CATHARTES AURA ]

As autumn arrives, many turkey vultures head south in search of thermals powerful enough to keep them aloft all day. Their very slow air speed makes flying in cold weather difficult but enables them to locate odors from decaying carrion as small as a single tadpole. Constantly on the verge of stalling and crashing, vultures rock from side to side to maintain balance. Their black color helps the birds watch one another from vast distances, and when one descends to the ground, others follow to see whether there's extra food. By sharing their meals, vultures earn a stake in the next tasty feast.

NATURAL HISTORY

Tens of thousands of vultures migrate through the southern Sierra Nevada each fall, and the annual Kern River Valley Turkey Vulture Festival (Sept. 24 to 27) celebrates the event. Some birds go as far as South America.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

Vultures hold their wings in a V-shape while flying. The adults' red heads and the juveniles' black heads both lack feathers that would get dirty when the birds feed on carcasses.

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