Species and Plant Community
Accounts for Identified Wildlife

Table of contents

TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)

Status

The turkey vulture is BLUE-listed because interior breeding populations are relatively low, and much of the coastal population gathers in one area of southern Vancouver Island during the autumn migration, which makes it vulnerable to habitat change. Over 1000 turkey vultures stage each autumn near Sooke.

Ecology

The turkey vulture is a large raptor that feeds exclusively on carrion. It searches for carrion by soaring in forested and open habitats, using vision and smell to locate food. Its highly developed sense of smell allows it to find food in dense coastal forest. The turkey vulture nests in caves in cliffs or bluffs, under boulders on rockslides, in large cavities in hollow snags or, occasionally, in dense vegetation on the ground. Its nesting habitat requirements in B.C. are very poorly understood, but in general western populations are thought to use mainly caves for nest sites. In B.C., it nests as isolated pairs. The breeding season extends from early April to late August. The turkey vulture roosts communally at night during migration, and during cold wet weather it may remain in the roost all day.

Distribution

Ecoprovinces: Ecosections
Biogeoclimatic units

Breeding range

The turkey vulture is an uncommon summer visitor and breeder in southern B.C., which represents the northernmost part of its range. They breed regularly on eastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the southwestern mainland coast, east through the lower Fraser River valley to near Hope. In the interior, it breeds along lower elevations of the Okanagan valley north to Shuswap Lake. Breeding is documented for the southern Kootenays, and is probable in the Thompson Basin, and on western Vancouver Island. Breeding occurs in lowland areas from near sea level to about 1000 m elevation.

Nonbreeding range

The nonbreeding range is similar to the breeding range, but a few individuals wander north to the Williams Lake and Prince George area.

Wintering and migration

The turkey vulture winters mainly in Central and South America. A few individuals may overwinter in southwestern B.C., but this is exceedingly rare. Spring migrants move in small flocks and arrive in B.C. in late March and April. Turkey vultures are most visible, however, during the autumn migration when flocks build up at staging areas. In September and early October, large numbers congregate on southern Vancouver Island; kettles of several hundred vultures can be seen at Sooke, Beechey Head and Rocky Point. It is possible that the entire coastal population stages there before flying southward across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Interior movements are much smaller and more subtle.

Habitat requirements

Broad ecosystem units

Structural stage

1: non-vegetated/sparse
6: mature forest
7: old forest

Critical habitats and habitat features

The turkey vulture nests primarily in caves, or crevices in cliffs, bluffs and rockslides, and is very sensitive to disturbance at the nest site. Although most nests found to date have been in cliff or rocky habitat, use of mixed forest, deciduous forest (e.g., mature cottonwoods [>age class 6] in riparian zones), and mature and old-growth coniferous stands (age class 7, 8, 9) has also been documented. Newly fledged young require elevated perches (e.g., broken-topped or large-limbed trees) in the vicinity of the nest site. Large diameter (minimum 50 cm dbh, minimum 10 m height) snags or decaying (decay class 2-4) live trees are required for roosting. Tall conifers on or near staging areas are important roost sites.

Selected references

Brown, W.H. 1976. Winter population trends in black and turkey vultures. Amer. Birds
30:909-912.

Coleman, J.S. and J.D. Fraser. 1987. Food habits of black and turkey vultures in
Pennsylvania and Maryland. J. Wildl. Manage. 51:733-739.

_____. 1989. Habitat use and home ranges of black and turkey vultures. J. Wildl.
Manage. 53:782-792.

Stewart, P.A. 1977. Migratory movements and mortality rate of turkey vultures. Bird-
Banding 48:122-124.

Wilbur, S.R. and J.A. Jackson. 1983. Vulture biology and management. Univ. Calif.
Press, Berkeley, CA.


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