A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)

Our only vulture. Common throughout Sonoma County (and most of the United States), and one of our most common birds. Hardly a day goes by without seeing one overhead--sometimes five or six or more--wheeling in slow circles over a road kill or other potential meal. Eats carrion and refuse.

In flight, usually keeps its wings still, in a shallow “V”, rocking back and forth from time to time, only rarely flapping its wings. The “V” posture (or dihedral) in the wings is distinctive. Also distinctive is the red, featherless head and white bill of adults (juveniles have dark heads and bills), and the contrast between the dark wing linings and the pale, semi-translucent flight feathers. This two-tone look (photo above) and the dihedral allow Turkey Vulture to be identified with the naked eye even at great distances.

Turkey Vulture is a communal rooster, and during the wet winter months, groups of them may sit in trees or on top of telephone poles with their wings outstretched to dry, looking very much like something out of a Charles Addams cartoon. The only other bird in the county that behaves this way is Double-crested Cormorant. Turkey Vulture is common today, but it may be at some risk as urban development reduces the availability of animal carcasses and because the large cavities the bird favors for nesting are found only in older dead trees, which are becoming scarce and are often removed.

At a distance, may be confused with Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), but that bird is uncommon in the county. Golden Eagle is considerably larger (wing span about 79 inches; typical Turkey Vulture wing span is about 67 inches). Golden Eagle flies with a slight dihedral, but less pronounced than Turkey Vulture and does not rock in flight the way Turkey Vulture does. Golden Eagle also lacks the distinct two-tone look in the wings. At close range, there should be no confusion. North America’s only other vulture is Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), but that bird is confined to the Eastern and Southern United States (although the range map in Sibley’s (Western North America edition) shows a dot of rare occurrence in California, far inland and well to the north of us. Where California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is present (not in Sonoma County), Turkey Vulture can be momentarily confused with the Condor, but the size differential is usually apparent even at very long distances--California Condor is a giant of a bird, with a wingspan of around 109 inches. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 26

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 182

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 44

Clark and Wheeler, Peterson Field Guide to Hawks of North America, 2nd ed., 2001, p. 18 (Plate 1), pp. 105

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 118

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 124

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 144-145

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 216

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 108

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 117

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 120

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 8, 127

Liguori, Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors in the Field, 2005, p. 107, 109-111, 126-130

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 65-66, 72, 76

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 20

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 92, 114

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 94

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 182

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 96

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 143

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 103

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Turkey Vulture. (Note, however, that Turkey Vultures generally don't make much noise; they are usually silent.)




© Colin Talcroft, 2009-2016

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Typical posture during flight--wings held in a slight "V"

Laguna de Santa Rosa, June 2, 2011

Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura

Turkey Vulture, Solano County, January 5, 2012

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 17, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Turkey Vulture waiting out the rain, Glen Ellen, December 30, 2015