Turkey Vulture Migration

Turkey Vulture in flight

The sight of a Turkey Vulture gliding effortlessly above the ground always fills me with a sense of awe. These birds are very large with a wingspan of almost two metres; in eastern North America, only eagles are larger. The masters of soaring flight, Turkey Vultures are easily recognized by the shallow “V-shaped” wings and their teetering flight with very few wingbeats. Although they appear black from a distance, up close they are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. The trailing edge and wingtips are silvery white below, giving them a two-toned appearance. Doran and I drove to Cambridge last weekend to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and we saw several vultures soaring above the fields along Highway 401 on our way down. On our return trip yesterday, we saw many more, and I estimate we saw at least 100 of them riding the thermals. These birds weren’t just hunting for food – they were migrating.

Turkey Vultures are considered partial migrants, as northern populations migrate, while southern populations generally do not. Vultures that breed in Eastern North American typically travel no farther south than Florida and Texas. Western populations migrate at least as far as Colombia and Venezuela, and some experts believe that some western birds may travel as far south as Brazil and Argentina. I saw a few vultures heading south in ones and twos, while most birds had formed groups of six or more. The largest group that I saw totaled 14 individuals.

When I checked my email this morning, I noticed that the major hawk watch locations along Lake Erie all reported more Turkey Vultures flying south than any other raptor. Holiday Beach recorded 2389 vultures, Hawk Cliff in Port Stanley recorded 3749 vultures, and the Detroit River hawk watch had counted 3660 migrating vultures. The two hawk watches in Whitby – Iroquois and Cranberry Marsh – counted only 212 and 641 respectively. These numbers confirmed my own observation that a large movement of Turkey Vultures had indeed taken place on Thanksgiving Monday.

A few groups of vultures appeared to be circling over the fields rather than gliding south over the 401. While the sight of circling vultures may indicate the presence of an animal carcass, they may also circle to gain altitude for long flights, search for food, or engage in play. A group of vultures is called a “venue”, while vultures circling in the air are a “kettle”.

Turkey Vultures can soar for hours without flapping their wings, making this the most energetically efficient form of travel by far. In fact, soaring vultures use only slightly more energy than they do when standing on the ground doing nothing! Their flapping, when it occurs, appears laborious and is usually used when taking off or landing.

Turkey Vultures usually don’t begin flying until a few hours after sunrise, after the air has been warmed by the sun. They gain altitude on pockets of rising warm air, called thermals, by circling frequently until they reach the top of the thermal. They are then able glide across the sky at speeds up to 100 km/h, while gradually losing altitude. When they need to gain more altitude, they locate another thermal and the process of circling, rising, and then gliding begins again. Turkey vultures can cover many miles going from thermal to thermal without ever needing to flap.

Watching the many Turkey Vultures soaring in the blue October sky – along with the occasional Red-tailed Hawk and Great Blue Heron, and the numerous Red-winged Blackbirds and starlings – helped pass the time on the long drive back to Ottawa. I hope they all reach their destination safely, and look forward to seeing them again in the spring.

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3 thoughts on “Turkey Vulture Migration

  1. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

  2. Thanks for your blog … I’ve been seeing turkey vultures in the Toronto area more this year than any other … above my home and work in the North Toronto area of the city …. During all of October, I have seen them above my workplace, a school in North Toronto) number as many as 8, circling above; and above my home just now, numbering in the mid 30’s. Such a beautiful site! I had only ever seen them in the Orangeville area around Mono Cliffs before.
    Thanks,
    Carrie

    • Hi Carrie, thanks for reading! Turkey Vulture migration can be spectacular, with huge numbers building up as they funnel south. They soar so elegantly you almost forget they aren’t very attractive when seen up close. Still, I will miss them when they leave.

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