The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most widespread species of vulture in the Americas, ranging from southern Canada to the southern tip of South America, and is one of the most abundant raptors in the world. Populations in the Chesapeake region stay all year long, although those living farther north migrate seasonally. Vultures are scavengers that eat carrion rather than catching live prey, an important part of the nutrient cycle in many ecosystems. They have good eyesight and a strong sense of smell to help detect their food and small bald heads with hooked beaks that are excellent for tearing into carcasses. Turkey vultures, also called turkey buzzards and carrion crows, get their common name from their resemblance to wild turkeys because of their featherless red heads and dark plumage. They soar on thermals to save energy while flying, roost together in large groups, and favor open habitats on the edges of wooded areas. Turkey vultures have few natural predators, but their eggs and hatchlings, which are raised in pairs without a nest in protected places like hollow trees and cliffs are the most vulnerable.
Turkey buzzards and the other six species of American vultures are not actually closely related to their Eurasian counterparts. They look similar because convergent evolution has selected for a set of traits useful to large scavenging birds. The American species would have looked familiar to Europeans arriving in the Americas though, and were grouped together with the vultures they knew from their homelands. Modern biologist now use genetics to better understand the complex relationships between different species.
Expert faunal analysis of Jamestown’s Second Well revealed a surprising number of raptor bones among almost 180,000 fragments of animal bone excavated from the feature. After bald eagle, the second most frequently identified raptor species in the well was the turkey vulture. At least 28 bones from several layers were positively identified as Cathartes aura, and at least one of the bones (a humerus, the large first bone in the wing) shows clear knife marks. Other vulture bones have been identified at Jamestown in contexts dated to the Starving Time winter of 1609 – 1610, including some with butchery marks. While vultures are not the most unusual thing consumed by the desperate colonists during that winter, the Second Well was dug in 1611 and represents a time known as the Martial Law period, when strict rules were enforced in an effort to stabilize the colony and avoid repeated disasters. These vultures may have been eaten by the colonists during another period of scarcity or they may represent another use for these birds that is yet to be understood.