Frequently Asked Questions

Vultures are roosting on my deck. Should I be worried about diseases or bacteria from their poop?
Because of the nature of their diets and digestive system, vulture poop is actually a sanitizer. Amazing! Their stomachs contain digestive acids that kill virtually all bacteria and viruses, and there is even evidence for the claim that they can consume meat infected with anthrax, destroying the virus in their digestive system. After stepping in a carcass, they will often expel their waste, which is white and fluid, onto their legs. The uric acid kills any bacteria that they may have picked up from the dead animal.
It is not fun to have vulture waste to clean off your deck. But it comes up quickly and easily with a hose and scrub brush, and you can take comfort in the fact that coming in contact with vulture “whitewash” will not endanger your health. See the link at the top of the page for tips on discouraging vultures from roosting on your porch.

I have a small dog. I worry about letting her out in the yard alone because there are vultures overhead. Will the vultures bother her?
No, the vultures are not at all interested in moving animals. Generally, turkey vultures do not kill. There are a few reports of the species killing live prey, but such reports are rare and involve extremely weak or helpless animals, like baby rats, grouse chicks, and small fish. These peaceful animals will pose no risk to your animals, children, or infants.

What do you call a group of vultures?
A group of vultures is called a “Venue”. Vultures circling on thermals of hot air are also referred to as a “Kettle”, because they resemble the rising bubbles in a boiling pot of water.

My husband says vultures don’t have any sense of smell. I say they can and do smell things. Who is correct?
Congratulations! You are both right! African and Asian vultures, being descended from hawks and eagles, have no sense of smell. This is characteristic of the majority of the bird kingdom. American vultures, however, including the turkey vulture, black vulture, Andean and California condor, and king vulture, CAN smell. The turkey vulture, in particular, has a very well-developed sense of smell. The turkey vulture has shown itself, in several tests, to use its sense of smell as a means of finding food. Leaks in natural gas pipelines have even been found thanks to the turkey vulture’s sense of smell. The explanation? Turkey vultures smell the chemical mercaptan, which smells like carrion and is put into natural gas for human safety, and then circle over the portion of pipe that is broken.

Do vultures find their food by smell or sight?
All vultures find food with their incredible eyesight, but turkey vultures have a keenly developed sense of smell, on which may rely on at times when foraging. It is not clear to what extent turkey vultures rely on their sight versus their smell, but in tropical environments, where carcasses may be hidden from view under the forest canopy, it is likely the birds depend more heavily on their sense of smell.

Will a vulture avoid decaying meat if it has gone beyond a point of no return? Is there anything that a vulture would turn up his beak at?
Yes, vultures WILL turn their nose up at carcasses in advanced stages of putrefaction. They prefer fresh meat (this has been demonstrated in choice experiments), but often may not find meat until it has decayed and become more odorous.

I have a farm and I see vultures on many occasions, especially if I have lost a calf. However, it seems that they will not eat a dog carcass. There has been a dog carcass on my road for a while and vultures have not touched it. Why do they choose to leave dog carcasses alone?
Turkey vultures, contrary to popular assumption, do not eat absolutely anything placed in front of them. Predatory animals (and scavengers as well) typically feed on herbivorous animals. The flesh of an herbivore is much tastier. And so turkey vultures often pass on carcasses of cats, dogs, and coyotes. They will, however, eat such carcasses in the absence of more desirable food.

Do vultures scavenge at night?
No, vultures have very poor vision in the dark.

How long can a turkey vulture live?
The oldest known turkey vulture, Tolouse, is 38 years old, and lives at the San Francisco Zoo.

Would vultures circle a moving object, like a vehicle carrying a dead or dying animal?
Contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily indicate the presence of a dead animal. Circling vultures may be gaining altitude for long flights, searching for food, or playing.
These birds soar on thermals of warm, rising air. This allows them to best conserve their energy in flight. After rising on the thermal, they glide as far as possible before they need to gain altitude again. They also rely on thermals of warm air to remain aloft while scanning the ground for food.
You will certainly see vultures in the air over a carcass, but in the case of small carcasses, the descent is rapid. As for larger carcasses, while remaining on the lookout for food, vultures are equally attuned to their fellow vultures. They note when others’ behavior indicates the discovery of a food source, and will flock to the area. Often, the entire group will remain aloft until sufficient birds have arrived to dispose of the carcass in a timely fashion.
Please note, however, that American vultures are not known to circle a dying animal.
In many parts of the world, vultures have become very brave and comfortable in the presence of humans. In these areas, they sit around rooftops, markets, and garbage dumps, and have much the same presence among the population as the gulls have among us. In such areas, they will follow carts full of food or garbage.

What exactly does a turkey vulture smell when an animal is dead or dying? Blood?
There are several gases associated with decay that turkey vultures can smell. One of these is the gas mercaptan. In a famous story, and the first indication that turkey vultures might be able to smell, workers on a natural gas pipeline were struggling to locate a leak in an extensive pipeline. In one area, the works were noticing that turkey vultures were congregating. They decided to dig up the pipeline under the vultures, and lo and behold, they found their leak! The explanation is that the vultures gathered above the leak due to the presence of mercaptan in the natural gas.

How do you determine the gender of a turkey vulture?
Male and female turkey vultures do not exhibit any visible differences. They are exactly alike in color, and do not differ significantly in size or weight. Gender cannot be determined without a medical procedure.

I found an abandoned baby vulture. What do I do?
Take a careful look at the situation before you jump to conclusions. Remember: American vultures DO NOT nest in trees. They lay their eggs on the ground, in caves, hollow logs or other cavelike structures. Sometimes the nest (which doesn’t appear nestlike at all) will be a simple dip, scratched into the ground, seemingly out in the open. Many hikers who happen upon such a nest believe that they have discovered a hawk that has fallen from its nest. If you see any evidence of nesting activity, you have probably stumbled on a nestling waiting for his parents to return with food. The best clue that you have discovered a nest is the presence of more than one baby. Please leave them be, unless one or more appear visibly injured.
If you are confident that your baby vulture is hurt or truly lost, pick him up carefully and place him in a covered box lined with towels. Contact a local wildlife rehabilitator immediately. The bird will require special care from a trained professional, and it is illegal for an unlicensed individual to posess or care for a vulture for more than 24 hours.

Is it okay to handle a vulture egg if the mother is not around?
No, you should never disturb a nest, whether the parents are present or not. However, if you know of someone who has unwittingly removed an egg from its place, it is possible to replace it in hopes that the parents will return to continue incubating the egg. Some vultures are very sensitive to nest disturbances, but others will remain devoted to their egg until it has been eaten or destroyed.

Can I raise a tukey vulture to keep as a pet?
Many years ago the United States entered into several International Treaties with Canada, Mexico, and all of the countries of Central and South America. These treaties were designed to protect all migratory birds from being killed, harmed, harrassed, or captured. By law, a person cannot keep one in captivity. The only exceptions are zoos (which must posess special permits for each animal they hold) and wildlife rehabilitators, who can obtain permits to keep a permanently injured vulture for educational or surrogate purposes.
In short, no, you cannot keep a vulture as a personal pet. However, you can find many ways to interact with vultures close-up. Try to find a local wildlife center with a non-releasable vulture, where you can volunteer. Or, if you are truly passionate about animals, consider becoming a rehabilitator yourself! There are very few rehabilitators who are willing to care for vultures.