If you guessed Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), you’re absolutely right!
If you are a frequent visitor to our rainforest you might be thinking “I’ve never seen a vulture in there.” You’re right again! Our vulture lives out in the West Garden adjacent to the building. However, turkey vultures range from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. They inhabit a huge diversity of habitats, including tropical rainforests.
They are scavengers that feed almost exclusively on carrion and are one of the few birds that have a developed sense of smell. In fact, that excellent sense of smell allows them to utilize rainforest habitat, as they have an alternative to searching for food by sight only. Other neotropical vulture species that don’t have that developed sense of smell will observe turkey vultures and follow them to food sources.
Turkey vultures have a unique defense mechanism – they will regurgitate their meal in an effort to startle a predator and quickly reduce their body weight so that they can fly away faster. Turkey vultures also have an interesting way of keeping cool during hot days – they urinate on their feet! This is called ‘urohydrosis’, and causes the white coloration seen on their legs.
You can see the Academy’s turkey vulture on exhibit in the West Garden daily between 10:00 am and 2:30 pm and meet the biologists that care for him Tue-Thurs at 2pm. Here is a picture of him preening his feathers to look his very best for your next visit: