Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
CATHARTES AURA, Linn.
PLATE II.--MALE AND
is far from
being known throughout the United States, for it has never been seen
farther eastward than the confines of New Jersey. None, I believe, have
been observed in New York; and on asking about it in Massachusetts and
Maine, I found that, excepting those persons acquainted with our birds
generally, none knew it. On my late northern journeys I nowhere saw it.
A very few remain and spend the winter in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,
where I have seen them only during summer, and where they breed. As we
proceed farther south, they become more and more abundant. They are
equally attached to maritime districts, and the vicinity of the
sea-shore, where they find abundance of food.
The Turkey-Buzzard was found in abundance on the Rocky
Mountains and along the Columbia river by LEWIS and CLARK, as well as
subsequently by Mr. TOWNSEND, although it is said by Mr. DAVID DOUGLAS
to be extremely rare on the north-west coast of America. On the Island
of Galveston in Texas, where it is plentiful, we several times found its
nest, as usual, on the ground, but on level parts of salt marshes,
either under the widespread branches of cactuses, or among tall grass
growing beneath low bushes, on which Herons of different species also
bred, their young supplying a plentiful store of food for those of the
Vultures. The eggs, which never exceed two in number, measure two inches
and seven-eighths in length, and one inch and seven and a half eighths
in their greatest breadth.
The flight of the Turkey-Buzzard is graceful compared
with that of the Black Vulture. It sails admirably either high or low,
with its wings spread beyond the horizontal position, and their tips
bent upward by the weight of the body. After rising from the ground,
which it does at a single spring, it beats its wings only a very few
times, to enable it to proceed in its usual way of sailing. Like the
Black Vultures, they rise high in the air, and perform large circles, in
company with those birds, the Fork-tailed Hawk, Mississippi Kite, and
the two species of Crow. The Hawks, however, generally teaze them, and
force them off toward the ground.
They are gregarious, feed on all sorts of food, and suck
the eggs and devour the young of many species of Heron and other birds.
In the Floridas, I have, when shooting, been followed by some of them,
to watch the spot where I might deposit my game, which, if not carefully
covered, they would devour. They also eat birds of their own species,
when they find them dead. They are more elegant in form than the Black
Vultures, and walk well on the ground or the roofs of houses. They are
daily seen in the streets of the southern cities, along with their
relatives, and often roost with them on the same trees. They breed on
the ground, or at the bottom of hollow trees and prostrate trunks, and
lay only two eggs. These are large, of a light cream-colour, splashed
toward the great end with large irregular markings of black and brown.
The young somewhat resemble those of the Black Vulture, and take a long
time before they can fly. Both species drink water freely, and in doing
this immerse their bill to the base, and take a long draught at a time.
They both breed at the same period, or nearly so, and raise only one
brood in the season.
I have found birds of this species apparently very old,
with the upper parts of their mandibles, and the wrinkled skin around
their eyes, so diseased as to render them scarcely able to feed amongst
others, all of which seldom failed to take advantage of their
infirmities. I have represented the adult male in full plumage, along
with a young bird, procured in the autumn of its first year. The average
weight of a full grown bird is 6 1/2 lbs., about 1 lb. less than that of
the Carrion Crow.
TURKEY-VULTURE or TURKEY-BUZZARD, Vultur Aura, Wils., vol.ix. p. 96.
CATHARTES AURA, Bonap. Syn., p. 22.
CATHARTES AURA, TURKEY-VULTURE, Rich. & Swains., F. Bor. Amer.,
vol. ii. p. 4.
TURKEY-VULTURE or TURKEY-BUZZARD, Nuttall, Man., vol. ii. p. 43.
TURKEY-BUZZARD, Cathartes Aura, Aud., vol. ii. p. 296; vol. v.
In the adult, the head and upper part of the neck are
destitute of feathers, having a red wrinkled skin, sparsely covered with
short black hair, and downy behind. Feathers of the neck full and
rounded concealing the naked crop. Wings ample, long; the first quill
rather short, the third and fourth longest. Tail longish, rounded, of
twelve broad straight feathers.
Bill at the tip yellowish-white; the cere and the naked
part of the head of a tint approaching to blood-red. Iris dark brown.
Feet flesh-coloured, tinged with yellow; claws black. The general colour
of the plumage is blackish-brown, deepest on the neck and under parts,
the wing-coverts broadly margined with brown; the back glossed with
brown and greenish tints; the tail purplish-black; the under parts of a
sooty brown, on the breast glossed with green.
Length 32 inches; extent of wings 6 feet 4 inches; bill
2 1/2 along the ridge, 2 2/12 along the gap; tarsus 2 1/2, middle toe 3
Young fully fledged.
The bill is, of course, shorter and more slender, its
horny tip pale blue, black on the back; the skin of the head is
flesh-coloured, the iris yellowish, the feet flesh-coloured. The plumage
is nearly of the same colour as in the adult.
The olfactory nerve has been
ascertained in the mammalia to be the instrument of smell; but in the
class of birds, experiments and observations are wanting to determine
its precise function, although analogy would lead us to suppose it to be
the same in them. So inaccurate have observers been in this matter, that
some of them have mistaken the large branch of the fifth pair, which
traverses the nasal cavity, for the olfactory nerve. The experiments
instituted upon Vultures shew that not only are they not led to their
prey by the sense of smell, but also that they are not made sensible by
it of the presence of food when in their immediate proximity. Yet, if
the olfactory nerve be really the nerve of smell, and if a large
expansion of the nasal membrane be indicative of an extension of the
faculty, one would necessarily infer that Vultures must possess it in a
high degree. On the other hand, however, the organ and the nerves being
found to be equally developed in birds, such as Geese and Gallinaceous
species, which have never been suspected of being guided by smell when
searching for food, it would seem to follow that the precise function of
this nerve, and the nasal cavities, has not yet been determined in
birds. That the nasal passages must be subservient to some other purpose
than that of respiration merely, is evident from their complexity, but
what that purpose is, remains to be determined by accurate observations