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Desert Diary
Birds/Turkey Vulture


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Imagine a world without garbage collectors. They're unappreciated--until we're without them. But nature long ago saw the importance of these unsung heroes and, thus, the Turkey Vulture!

Graceful when soaring overhead, these birds are downright homely up close. Bald birds??! Yes, here it is! The Turkey Vulture is a skinhead—but this actually fits it for its job. These birds feed on carrion—the bodies of dead animals—carrying on the natural cycle of life. Sticking a head inside a rotting animal is messy, so the bald head is just what these birds need to avoid matted, nasty feathers!

Many Native Americans considered the Turkey Vulture a powerful spirit. At Taos Pueblo, this bird is believed to carry away the spirits of slain warriors, while Cochiti inhabitants see the bird as a great purifier that carries disease from the pueblo. Although this bird may not be the world's most beautiful creature, it is as important as any other, fulfilling its humble role as nature's garbage collector.
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Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Scott Cutler, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Turkey Vulture Photo

Turkey Vulture. Photograph by Scott M. Cutler.



Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 544 pp.

Tyler, Hamilton A. 1979. Pueblo birds and myths. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 308 pp.

Web Resources

The Turkey Vulture Society.

USGS site. Lots of good information.

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