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Discover Nature: Turkey Vultures

A black turkey vulture, with characteristic red head sits on a gray cedar tree branch in winter sunshine.
A turkey vulture sits on a tree branch in winter sunshine. Most turkey vultures venture south for the winter, but are beginning to return to Missouri this week, where many will take up residence for the summer.

This week on Discover Nature, turkey vultures begin to return to Missouri.

These large, black-bodied birds, sometimes called buzzards, are actually related to storks and flamingos. Turkey vultures have featherless, wrinkled, red heads, and are voiceless, except for a few hisses and groans they use to communicate with each other. 

Their bare heads and fee get cold and damp at night, so they begin their days by sunbathing to warm up. 

Vultures usually roost in large colonies atop trees or bluffs where they can catch warm-air updrafts without expending much energy. 

However, they do not build nests in trees. Instead, a female will lay one to three eggs, often in a stump, log, or cave entrance, and takes turns with her male partner sitting on the eggs and feeding the chicks once they hatch. 

Despite their ominous depiction in many movies, vultures are characteristically gentle, inquisitive, and highly intelligent. They are federally- and state-protected in Missouri, and pose no threat to livestock or humans. 

As scavengers, vultures play an important role in cleaning up carrion from our natural areas, turning animal proteins into rich soil nutrients. 

Watch for these large birds this week as they return from southern wintering grounds to take up summer residence in Missouri. 

Learn more about turkey vultures with the Missouri Department of Conservation’s online field guide

Discover Nature is sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

Kyle Felling was born in the rugged northwest Missouri hamlet of St. Joseph (where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended). Inspired from a young age by the spirit of the early settlers who used St. Joseph as an embarkation point in their journey westward, Kyle developed the heart of an explorer and yearned to leave for adventures of his own. Perhaps as a result of attending John Glenn elementary school, young Kyle dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but was disheartened when someone told him that astronauts had to be good at math. He also considered being a tow truck driver, and like the heroes of his favorite childhood television shows (The A-Team and The Incredible Hulk) he saw himself traveling the country, helping people in trouble and getting into wacky adventures. He still harbors that dream.
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