Turkey Vulture Vs Hawk

Despite being raptors, Turkey vultures and hawks differ significantly from their appearances, preferred habitats, and diets to their flight patterns, mating rituals as well as body postures.

Still, the main dissimilarity comes from their foraging habits.

Or say,

While Turkey Vultures are essentially scavengers, Hawks are ardent assassins.

Now, I have previously discussed ‘How to Tell the Difference Between a Hawk and a Vulture’, outlining the general contrast between the two species. Which you can check out Hawk Vs Vulture

However, most people don’t confuse all Vultures with all Hawks.

Instead, they pick just one vulture species – Turkey Vultures and muddle it with Hawks, especially the Red-tailed Hawks and sometimes the Cooper’s Hawks.  

Now, if you look at any hawk and at Turkey Vultures simultaneously, you will immediately recognize these as distinct birds.

In fact, you may even feel more perplexed, wondering:

Why Turkey Vultures Are Confused With Hawks?

It may be that the two birds are frequently found together, and so, naturally assumed related.

But likely, the confusion between Vultures and Hawks started when the term ‘Buzzard’ became casual for any large bird. 

You see, in North America, a ‘Buzzard’ is a New World Vulture and by extension, a Turkey Vulture.

However, the same ‘Buzzard’ is a Hawk to the rest of the world. 

It gets trickier as Old World Vultures are called just “Vultures”, but never buzzards. 

Moreover, Turkey Vultures are also known as Turkey Buzzards, John Crows, and sometimes Carrion Crows.

Despite being black, Turkey Vultures are never called ‘Black Buzzards’ as that term is specific to Black Vultures. 

Also, Carrion Crows can mean ‘Black Vultures’ or simply, regular ‘Crows’ eating some carcass. 

Ideal and precise! Very American, Indeed.  

But who am I taking a Jab at? The rest of the World is no better.

Now a Buzzard is a Hawk for all the Eurasian Descendants, but apparently, they are so polite that they call nearly all the raptors some “Hawks”.

So, an Eagle is a Large Hawk, an Osprey is a Fish-Hawk, a Falcon is a Swift Hawk, a Vulture is a Spooky Hawk,

But a Hawk is a ‘Buzzard’ or sometimes a Small Eagle.

Anyways, I hope you see how Turkey Vultures and Hawks are part of the mix-up.

So, it’s only befitting that these two birds be given extra attention and evaluated for their differences to end the confusion once and for all.

Therefore, I present to you:

Turkey Vulture Vs. Hawk – The Difference Between The Two (In Detail)

Generally, a Turkey Vulture is much larger and Bulkier than a Hawk.

However, such differences should be debated only after acknowledging the two birds as distinct species.

And so, the first dissimilarity comes from their scientific families or classification: 

1. Taxonomic Differences

Now, Turkey vultures share bird Order with Hawks.

However, the two are not much genetically related and so, they are classified into entirely different bird families (See Figure 1). 

Technically, Turkey Vultures are related to Hawks only as much as seagulls are related to them.

Turkey vultures vs hawks

Figure 1: Differentiating Turkey Vultures and Hawks based on their Taxonomic Groups

Interestingly, Old World Vultures are genetically closer to hawks than they are to Turkey vultures or any other New World Vultures.

Ornithologists suggest that Old World Vultures resemble New World Vultures only because of the convergent evolution. 

That means the two groups of vultures evolved separately but ended up with similar features.

2. Difference In Appearance

Turkey Vulture Hawk
Size and Shape A Turkey Vulture is about 1.5kgs in weight and can grow as tall as 3-feet, typically flaunting a wingspan greater than 6-feet.

So, normally more massive and bulkier than an average hawk.

An average Hawk is about 0.5kgs in weight and can grow as tall as 2-feet, typically with a wingspan exceeding 4 feet. 

Generally, smaller and lighter than a typical Turkey Vulture.

General Appearance Featherless redheads that resemble Turkeys, giving the vultures their name “Turkey Vultures”. These have black base feathers contrasting with dark-brown fore feathers.

However, the wing feathers have white undersides.

No precise body spotting.

Ruffled or unkempt appearance with a slouched body stance.

Completely covered with feathers of gray or reddish-brown contours with white streaks on the edges.

However, no white streaks on the undersides.

Most species have either spotted necks, breasts, or legs.

Always appear rather groomed and alert with a graceful erect posture.  

Beaks Piercing pale-beaks tough enough to tear through even cowhide. Hooked black beaks with a yellow tinge. Some species have extensions in the upper Mandible called Tomial teeth
Feet and Talons Elongated straight chicken-like feet for designed for just walking and not hunting.

Typically pink or pale white in color.

Strong muscular feet with sharp long talons built for hunting and grabbing victims.

Typically yellow in color, but some species have black feet.

Feathers and Flight Square and broad feathers, with rounded finger-like edges.

Ideal for soaring at thousands of feet above the ground.

However, the feathers do not allow short bursts of swift flight.

Broad but rather sleek, smooth, and glossy feathers.

Allows hawks to circles and travel on thermals.

However, exceptionally good for short bursts of streamlined flight exceeding 190km/hour.

Vision and Smell Turkey Vultures can smell a carcass from as far as 2 miles away. They also possess exceptional vision and are estimated to see a carcass of 4-feet long from as far as 3 miles away.  The Hawks don’t have a sense of smell. 

However, they have exceptional eyesight and can see a moderate-sized prey from about 2 miles.

Voice Either Hiss or Screech. Produce strong cries.
Gender Differentiation Genders don’t have much difference in size or shape. Typically, males are about 2/3rd the size of a female. Males are also more agile than females.

3. Differences In Habitat Preferences

Turkey Vulture Hawk
Ideal Habitat Turkey vultures are the most abundant vultures in North America and they prefer open spaces, shrublands, and deciduous forests.  Hawks are found in nearly all continents and may live from thick forests to desserts and rock crevices.

But most species prefer highlands with tall trees.

Nests Don’t build nests at all. Rather they lay eggs in caves, hollow logs, crevices, and sometimes even bleak recesses.

Sometimes they lay eggs in abandoned nests. 

Build stick nests on either rocky cliffs or high perches.

May return to the same nest each year.

4. Differences In Behaviors

These include:

Turkey Vulture Hawk
Social Behaviors Turkey Vultures live and fly in flocks called either venue, committee, or volt.

These birds eat and roost together. Sometimes, black vultures also roost with Turkey vultures.

The Hawks don’t live in flocks

In fact, even mates hunt together only during the breeding season.

Flight Patterns These circle for hours but may wobble. However, flapping is hard for them. These can circle moderately, but may not wobble much.

Furthermore, Hawks can change their direction midair, diving as fast as 210km/hour.

Hunting Smell the carcass from far away, circle above the dead body for hours to ensure safety. 

Come down, eat to their fill and stay at the spot until they digest all the materials.

Observe and wait for the prey, take a dive from behind, grab and crush the surprised victim. Then take the prize somewhere safe to devour.
Prey Carrion typically dead animals or decaying vegetables. Sometimes live insects or fish from a drying pond. May eat anything they can hunt from small insects, lizards, frogs, and toads to rodents, rabbits, and squirrels. 
Breeding Patterns Mate for life but pick another partner after death do them apart.

Lay eggs from March to June.

Courting involves several vultures circling together with partially closed wings.

Most mate for life, but some may take a new partner each year.

May lay eggs up to thrice a year.

Courting is mainly a show of dominance with high-pitched sounds combined with agile moves.

Eggs A single clutch has 1-3 creamy-white eggs with bluish-purple shade and colored spotting.

Only mothers incubate the eggs.

A single clutch has 1-5 eggs with bluish-white color and brown spots.

Both Parents incubate eggs.

Hatchlings Hatchlings are buff white with black bare faces. 

Parents feed their kids through regurgitation.

Typically, fledglings become responsible at 10-weeks of age.

Hatchlings are completely covered with white feathers. 

Parents feed the babies by bringing the kill home.

Typically, fledglings leave at 4-6 weeks of age.

5. Other Differences

Turkey Vulture Hawk
Digestive System Have exceptionally corrosive digestive juices to ensure that Turkey vultures don’t contract diseases from the dead bodies. The digestive system is not as corrosive as those of Vultures.
Urohydrosis Defectate down their legs to keep moisture from leaving. The residual urine turns their pinkish feet into rather white. Don’t employ Urohydrosis.

Now, that we have discussed the dissimilarities between the two species, you may be more interested in finding how the two interact.

Do Hawks Attack Turkey Vultures? 

Normally, they don’t.

Surely, a hawk has strong gripping talons that may crush a vulture if the need ever arises.

However, you must understand that:

Both Hawks and Vultures reason way more than an Average Bird. 

Now, a hawk doesn’t like taking unnecessary risks or fights. 

It does not have to compete with the vultures as a hawk prefers fresh food over the carcasses.

While hawks have been reported to eat baby vultures, but, most hawks don’t truly fancy eating a vulture.

(Frankly, no sane animal does.)

Besides, a vulture presents more threat than a scuttling mouse or a sparrow for that matter.

So, for most hawks, attacking a vulture is rather a pointless risk.

They may attack a vulture if:

  1. Resources are too scarce with vultures as the only living prey available.
  2. A hawk happens upon a baby Vulture.
  3. A hawk is in its breeding cycle and a vulture is hovering near the nest.
  4. A hawk is inexperienced or injured to the point it has to survive on a carcass.

Meanwhile, a vulture is a large bird with chicken-like feet. 

Despite their nerve-racking appearance, vultures have learned to become cautious.

In fact, they take hours approaching a carcass to ensure the dead has indeed departed and won’t try to eat them back. 

(I don’t disagree with vultures because humans have been reported to play dead in the deserts just to eat a hovering Vulture and survive.)

Yet, vultures avoid Hawk territories.

So does that mean…

Are Vultures Afraid Of Hawks?

Not precisely. 

Now, a typical vulture is about 1.5 times the size of a hawk. Since the size is associated with dominance, therefore, vultures are supposedly more powerful than hawks. 

In principle, vultures shouldn’t be afraid of hawks.

Vultures have flesh-piercing beaks which seem on par with Hawk’s hooked bill.

Even their eyes and sense of smell are better suited for any hostile encounter.

However, a hawk can sneak up on its enemies and knock out anyone with its swiftness. 

So, despite being smaller, Hawks seem better equipped to fight off vultures.

Interestingly, when vultures are approached by hawks they just throw up and take flight.

However, the puke is a survival tactic and not a display of nervousness.

It reduces the vulture’s weight and allows it to become airborne.

And the vomit distracts most of the threats.


Vultures have been reported to attack other birds if it ever comes to their offspring.

And so, vultures avoiding hawks maybe just their cautious nature and not fear.

Related article – Do vultures have predators?

Finally, with their alarming looks, you may wonder:

Will a Turkey Vulture Attack You?

Normally, it won’t.

You see, vultures are built only to devour dead and dying. 

They have featherless faces that ensure no dead bits get stuck to their faces, poking bills to break through hides, corrosive digestive juices to not contract diseases of the dead, and exceptional senses to locate a decaying matter.

And so, it seems highly unlikely that they will ever see you as prey.

So, if you approach a turkey vulture it will probably just get curious.

It may expand its wings to stop your approach only if it has babies nearby.

Otherwise, a vulture will take flight and not risk being near a human.

Related article – Do Vultures attack humans?


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