Vultures in Washington (All You Need To Know)

Turkey Vulture flying

Two of the three species of Vultures found in North America have been spotted in Washington. They are the California Condor and Turkey Vulture.

Vultures have some disgusting habits such as urinating on themselves to keep cool, only eating bacteria-laden dead animals which they stick their bald heads into to tear the flesh, and vomiting to escape from predators.

However, these disgusting habits are in fact brilliant adaptations that help the vultures to survive and clean up the environment for us.

Vultures urinating on themselves not only help to keep them cool but is also thought to kill the bacteria on their legs that they pick up when walking through the dead animals.

Vultures’ bald heads stop their feathers from getting congealed with blood from having to stick their heads inside carcasses to get to the flesh. Their legs are weak, and their talons are not strong enough to grab and hold the food, so they just use their powerful beaks to tear and rip.

The stomach acid of vultures is extremely strong, and this makes them one of the few animals that can safely eat the bacteria-laden carcasses that would potentially harm or kill other species, so getting rid of this harmful bacteria from the environment. Bacteria such as botulism and anthrax.

Vomiting to get away from predators is thought to enable them to be lighter to take off, as they gorge themselves so become very heavy, and it may provide a distraction.

Vultures lack vocal organs to make songs, but they can make deep hisses or grunts, especially when alarmed or jostling for a space at a carcass.

There are 23 species of vultures in the world, and 2 of them live in Washington. If you are interested in birds of prey, you should check out this guide to hawks in Washington.

This guide will help you identify the types of Vultures spotted in Washington according to avibase and uses data collected from bird watchers on ebird to give real information about when these birds can be spotted.

2 Species of Vultures in Washington

1. Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures can be found in Washington during the breeding season and occur in 9% of summer checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state. They are usually spotted from March to October, but a few hang around all year.

Turkey Vultures are aptly named. They do look like turkeys with their big, bald, red heads and upper necks and brownish-black bodies. However, they are larger than turkeys, and when they’re in flight, their broad wings are slightly raised and make a “V”.  

Under their wings, they have gray coloring, making it seem like they’re two-toned. Their eyes are dark brown, and their bills are light-colored.

There are a total of 6 subspecies of Turkey Vultures, and three of them are in North America, which is why they are sometimes classified as “Northern” Turkey Vultures. There are only minor differences among them, mainly tail and wing proportions and color in the underwing feathers. 

  • Cathartes aura
  • Length:  26 – 32 in (66 – 81 cm)
  • Weight: 51.2 oz (1451 g)
  • Wingspan: 68 – 72 in (173 – 183 cm)

You can find Turkey Vultures in a wide range of habitats, but the most common is open and semi-open areas next to woodlands. They need open areas, like grasslands, shrublands, deserts, and wetlands for foraging. They also need forests with high trees for nesting and roosting, and they need middle to high elevations, like hills and mountainous areas, to give them a height advantage for taking flight. 

Turkey Vulture flying

Sometimes, they will also venture into farmlands or pasturelands for foraging and roosting. Human-made structures are also taken over by them when they’re in urban areas, but only if they can’t find their preferred habitats. 

Turkey Vultures’ main source of food is carrion or recently dead or decaying animals as long as it hasn’t decayed too much. They may feed on roadkill and washed-up fish and may even kill small or weak animals. 

Turkey Vultures calls: They can only make a raspy hissing sound but are usually silent.

Nests of Turkey Vultures are often found in sheltered areas, like crevices in cliffs and old buildings. They may also use hollow trees or logs and dense thickets. However, they don’t actually build nests. Instead, the female just lays one to three eggs on the ground at the nesting site. Incubation takes around thirty-eight to forty-one days and is accomplished by both parents. 

Fun Facts: The sense of smell of Turkey Vultures is quite strong, and they’re able to detect odors of decaying or dead animals on the ground from great distances.  

When Turkey Vultures are threatened or aggravated, they will vomit to provide a distraction and fly away. They may even pretend to be dead. 

2. California Condor

California condor

California Condors are extremely rare birds to see in Washington, but they have been accepted by the Washington Ornithological Society under their review list.

The California Condor is the largest North American land bird. It is a critically endangered species with only about 500 living individuals as of 2020. 

California Condors are very large birds of prey. They resemble airplanes when in flight because of their broad wings, which they hardly flap at all. Their primary feathers also look like long “fingers” as they’re spread out when in the air. 

California Condors have yellow skin coloring on their heads and necks. The color can change from yellowish to red (and variants in between) during courtship or when it’s angry or distressed. Their eyes are brownish-red with red scleras (surrounding the iris). 

They have pinkish air sacs in the throat and near the breast area, which puff out during courtship or for aggressive displays. They also have black feathers around the base of their necks. Their backs and wings are black. The underside of the wings has triangular white patches that are visible in flight.

Juveniles look similar to adults, with the exception of the coloration on the head and the patches on the underside of their wings. A Juvenile’s head is mottled dark brown with black. Under its wings, the color is mottled gray instead of white. 

  • Gymnogyps californianus
  • Length:  46 – 52 in (117 – 132 cm)
  • Weight: 356.8 oz (10, 112 g)
  • Wingspan: 72 – 108 in (183 – 274 cm)

You can find California Condors in a variety of habitats as they need open or semi-open grasslands, scrublands, and woodlands for foraging and nesting. They also need as much as 6,000 feet of elevation and open and windy areas, like cliff edges or exposed tree branches,  to give them high perches for launching into flight. 

The California Condor normally uses thermals, or upward currents of warm air, to gain height and keep them soaring in the air. 

California Condor flying

California Condors are carrion eaters. Carrion is flesh from any decaying animal. They eat medium to large-sized dead animals, preferably those recently killed or died. These animals include sheep, deer, elk, horses, sea lions, and whales. They eat even the bones of smaller animals to supplement their calcium needs.

California Condor calls: They are usually silent but can make some grunts, hisses, or snorts.

Nests of Calfornia Condors are usually in cliff caves, but these are not actual nests because California Condors don’t actually build them. The female lays only one egg every other year. This is one of the reasons why their numbers are too few. But, the good thing is that they are known to “double clutch”, meaning they may lay another egg to replace a “lost” one.  

Researchers then take advantage of this to double the reproductive rate by taking one egg to raise themselves and leaving the second egg for the actual parents to raise. Incubation is done by both parents for around fifty-five days. Once hatched, the young stay with their parents until they’re in their second year. 

Fun Facts: California Condors have a long life span, reaching up to sixty years. They were originally almost extinct despite this, but conservation efforts have proven successful, and now there are as many as 500 birds in the wild and in captivity.