A Turkey Vultures Sense of Smell

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) takes a stroll.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) takes a stroll.

A Turkey Vulture was walking among the grass by the side of the road. Rarely do I see these big birds on the ground except for when they are feeding. Even As I moved closer, the bird simply hurried in the opposite direction. I watched the bird for ten minutes and it never took flight. Maybe it was sick or hurt.

Turkey Vulture: A Purifier

Turkey Vultures fascinate me for many reasons. They are large birds commonly seen soaring overhead. Their scientific name is Cathartes aura. “Cathartes” being Greek for  “purifier” or “cleanser”.  And “auror” being a latinized form of the Mexican Indian name for the birds.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) flying
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) flying

All vultures eat the dead things by the side of the road. In spring there are many dead animals along busy roadsides. There are red foxes, white-tailed deer, racoons, skunks, opossums and your garden variety cats and dogs.

closeup of turkey vulture head
Closeup of turkey vulture head

Their Sense of Smell

All birds can taste and smell, but the Turkey Vulture has the ability to hone in on the smells of rotting meat even when soaring high above the Earth.

That sense of smell makes the species well adapted to foraging over forests. The eastern half of North America is naturally covered with forests. These birds flying high above the tree canopy could smell a freshly rotting corpse even if the bird could not see it through the vegetation.

turkey vulture perched in a tree.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) perched in a tree.

Engineers have used Turkey Vultures sense of smell to locate leaks in pipelines. The engineers pump chemicals that smell like rotten meat into leaking pipelines. Then they watch for the spots where the birds congregate.

turkey_vulture_standing in grass

How Good Could It Taste?

How good could a Turkey Vulture taste? I doubt it would make a delicious meal. I imagine the meat would taste just awful. The birds eat meat in various stages of decay and you are what you eat. And all vultures squirt liquid excrement onto their legs for the cooling effect of the evaporating liquid. I’ll skip the drumstick. Maybe they taste like bad chicken.

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  1. Great pictures, Donna. I really do love Turkey Vultures, too. I read once that some native american cultures referred to them as ‘peace eagles’ because they only/mostly eat dead animals. It’s appropriate that they fly with their wings in a dihedral (‘V’ for turkey vulture or maybe a peace sign!).

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