Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

A large black bird with a red head scratches its bill.
Turkey vultures, like this one perched along the Mississippi River, are not handsome birds, but they make a healthier environment for all of us.

NPS/Gordon Dietzman

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Dead animals. Smelly carcasses. Sorry sights. We’ve all seen dead animals on the side of the road after they were struck by vehicles. It's not a pleasant sight, but have you ever wondered what happens to the bodies of animals that die?

One answer to this question may be turkey vultures. These large birds don't usually kill their own food but rely on disease, predators, and careless drivers to provide them with the carcasses on which they feed. As a result, they often are associated with death.

When turkey vultures eat a carcass, however, they are doing the environment a favor by preventing the possible spread of disease to other animals, possibly even to ourselves.

But to find carcasses, turkey vultures must often search large areas each day. Flying, which permits them to cover a lot of ground, is tiring and takes lots of energy. To conserve energy, vultures avoid flapping flight by soaring along bluffs on upwelling air currents and in columns of rising warm air called thermals. Also, unlike other birds, turkey vultures have an excellent sense of smell, which permits them to locate dead animals quickly.

Turkey vultures use their adaptations to efficiently find and consume dead animals, removing those carcasses from our roadsides, fields, and forests.

In the past, turkey vultures have been thought of as harbingers of evil and darkness. Instead, we should value turkey vultures, nature's cleaning crew, for their valuable service.


  • Key ID Features: A very large dark bird with red head. Silver-edged wings during flight. Holds wings in a V-shape and tend to "rock" back and forth when soaring, unlike other large birds. Often seen soaring along bluffs and circling in thermals.
  • Present in the Park: March - October. Look for these birds soaring along the bluffs between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
  • Habitat: Anywhere along the Mississippi River within the park; present even in urban areas. Nests in cliffs, caves, hollow trees, thickets, even abandoned buildings, but always in places free of human disturbance.
  • Voice: Series of hisses and croaks.

Last updated: March 16, 2022

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Mailing Address:

111 E. Kellogg Blvd., Suite 105
Saint Paul, MN 55101


This is the general phone line at the Mississippi River Visitor Center.

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