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Turkey vultures take sun baths to clean their wings

By Gary Bogue
Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 6:26 am in Sun, Turkey vultures.

Vultures sunning themselves. Photo by Jim Klent, San Leandro
Vulture Wings

I’ve been getting reports from people who see turkey vultures perched in trees or standing on telephone poles with their wings spread and wonder what’s going on.

They are sunning themselves to clean their wings.

Turkey vultures eat road kills and other dead animals. Their feet, beaks and feathers are often contaminated with bacteria from the often long-dead animals. Sunning themselves allows the sun’s ultraviolet rays to kill the bacteria.

That’s why they take sun baths. When the sun rises in the morning, the instant the sun’s rays shine on a vulture, its wings automatically spread wide.

When I worked as curator of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, Calif., back in the 1970s, we had several non-releasable turkey vultures we kept on display and used for educational purposes.

In the morning when I turned on the lights in the museum, the vultures instantly spread their wings.

Pure reflex. /Gary

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5 Responses to “Turkey vultures take sun baths to clean their wings”

  1. Maggie Rufo Says:

    Don’t you think they are also thermoregulating? I believe that is part of it. When it’s cold they may even torp. They cannot really get going in the morning until they warm up via their solar panel wings!

  2. ws Says:

    Academic sources all say it’s thermoregulation and drying.

  3. Jeff Says:

    I saw this this morning here in CT, two black vultures were high up in a tree with wings spread….really spooked me out!

  4. Mary Morris Says:

    I live in Oakley, and curiously, in the last couple of weeks, we have had a lone turkey vulture perch in a dead almond tree behind our back fence, which borders on 1 acre parcels. Yes, it sits in the tree with it’s wings spread, facing east. Thanks for filling me in on that behaviour.
    Just wondering though, aren’t turkey vultures a social species? Could this one be an outcast?

  5. Gary Bogue Says:

    Mary: Sounds like it just got separated from the flock. I doubt it’s an outcast. Vultures spread their wings in the sunlight to allow solar radiation to help kill any bacteria they might have picked up while feeding on long-dead things. When the sun comes up in the morning, you often see all the vultures in the flock standing there with their wings spread. /Gary

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