Bird of the Month: The Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures are common summer residents of Los Alamos County. Photo by Bob Walker.

By Bob Walker

As the end of summer approaches, our Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) will soon start to head south for the winter, returning back to Los Alamos County in early March. These wide-ranging birds are year-round residents from South America through Central America to the Southeastern U.S. They are found in the summer in the rest of the U.S. up to southern Canada.

Turkey Vultures are the September selection for Bandelier National Monument’s Year of the Bird program. The National Park Service designed this program to highlight the importance of protecting migrating birds, and 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You can visit Bandelier’s website to learn more about this program for the remainder of this year.

Turkey Vultures characteristically soar with their wings held in a v-shaped pattern, wobbling as they soar, either looking for thermals or dropping to lower altitudes to search for carrion. Their flight behavior is imitated by the less common Zone-tailed Hawk, which has white bands on its tail feathers. The hawk uses its Turkey Vulture disguise to fool prey. Turkey Vultures do not chase live prey but locate decaying food by smelling the gas mercaptan, making them one of the few birds with a highly developed sense of smell.

Turkey Vultures breed here in the summer, leaving in October for the winter to head to Central America, going as far south as Ecuador. While here for the summer, they roost in several well-known locations in the county. You can always find them roosting above the ice rink in Los Alamos Canyon, in Bandelier National Monument, and they sometimes in trees in White Rock.

Turkey Vultures roosting in a cottonwood tree in White Rock. Photo by Bob Walker.

Find more detailed articles about Turkey Vultures on these web pages:,, and in the PEEC Nature Guide. You can also see beautiful photos of Turkey Vultures at the Alan Murphy web site. For more images, perform an image search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll find many excellent photographs.

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