The TV, or Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) as it is more formally known, is a common and widespread New World species that birders largely take for granted. In terms of identification, beginners enjoy learning the differences between TV and BV (or Black Vulture), and later on the TV is a potential confusion species when looking for a Golden Eagle or Zone-tailed Hawk.
But who looks much further? Now if there were three species of Turkey Vulture, might you be more interested?
Well, there probably are three species of TV, but ‘nobody’ (ornithologists as well as birders) cares to study them, and thus they remain under the radar for most people. Interestingly, the yellow-headed vultures, in the same genus, Cathartes, were only recognized as two species (Greater and Lesser) as recently as 1964, but the red-headed (= Turkey) vultures remain lumped, at least for now. So what are the three potential species of TV? And where do you find them? Well, partly because nobody really looks at TVs, and partly because their nests are very rarely found, the breeding distributions and ranges of the three red-headed vultures are imperfectly known. Below I offer a summary — but remember, next time you’re in South America, or even southern Central America, pay attention to TVs, look at them, maybe snap some images, and slowly a better picture of distribution may emerge.
The eBird checklist has the option to record the three field identifiable forms, but be careful you don’t assume type based on geography—the Tropical Turkey Vulture’s range extends well south in Argentina, into temperate Patagonia.
Northern Turkey Vulture (Cathartes [aura] aura) breeds from North America south to Costa Rica, and comprises 2-3 subspecies that differ in subtle ways not likely to be consistently and reliably discerned in the field. Northern populations are migratory, wintering south into northern South America, but details of winter distribution remain poorly known—because basically nobody birding in South America looks at TVs! This is the taxon most birders in the US and Canada are (un)familiar with. The head is pinkish to pinkish red (intensity of head color varies in all taxa, often being brightest in hot and sunny conditions, darkest and dullest when cooler), usually with some blackish feathering on the hindneck and lores, and often with some whitish ‘warts’ on the lores. The lesser and median upperwing coverts are obviously edged brown, forming a distinct scaly or scalloped pattern.
Tropical Turkey Vulture (Cathartes [aura] ruficollis) breeds in tropical America, from Costa Rica (northern range limit uncertain) south to central Argentina (northern Patagonia), mainly east of the Andes (elevation limits uncertain). Details of its breeding range are not well known, e.g., in western Ecuador and northern Peru it can be found alongside the quite distinct Austral TV. Adults have a contrasting whitish (bluish-white to greenish-white) patch on the hindneck, that shows up as a contrasting pale nape band in flight; moreover, the eyes may be paler than in other taxa, but more observations are needed. The plumage is darker overall than Northern TV, with a blacker body and less contrasting dark brown edgings to the upperwing coverts.
Austral Turkey Vulture (Cathartes [aura] jota) breeds in temperate South America, from Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands north along the Pacific coast to Ecuador, and north in the Andes to Colombia. It can sometimes be seen alongside Tropical TV in western Peru and Ecuador. Birds in the lowlands from coastal Ecuador south to the Falklands are sometimes treated as the subspecies falklandica, distinct from jota in the Andes.
This is the largest TV, and the adult head is typically bright pinkish red (averaging brighter and pinker than the darker and redder head of Northern and Tropical TVs), with little or no blackish feathering. The overall blackish lesser and median upperwing coverts typically contrast with the pale edged greater coverts and secondaries; on worn first-year birds, the juvenile upperwing coverts can fade to brownish, suggesting the scaly pattern of Northern TV.