As an avid birdwatcher my favorite reference questions obviously involve bird identification quandaries. The other night a patron showed me a photo she’d taken on her smart phone of a group of large dark-colored birds in a field. I don’t think she was prepared for me to scream “Turkey Vultures!” into her face…but when you show me bird photos that is what sometimes happens. She had questions about where the name originated and it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually sure but was excited to look for references. Her enthusiasm was not on the same level, more of a passing interest, so she thanked me and took off before I could overload her with vulture trivia. My research found the following:
As to the name origins of Turkey Vulture, I found a book called Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr which is a casual dictionary of genus and species names for birds. Inside I found the genus Cathartes (pronounced ka-THAR-teez) defined as : “Greek, katharos, clean, pure, as in purifier or purger, as in Cathartes aura, the Turkey Vulture, which scavenges, thereby clearing away dead animals.” The species name was also included, Aura (AW-ra), as in “Breeze, air” which would probably describe their habit of drifting along on thermal winds though this is not mentioned specifically in the book.
Another bird name book ICPL offers is 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells. Here the author has the following to say about Turkey Vulture naming, “North American settlers, who gave them their common name, thought they looked a bit like turkeys [bald heads and dark bodies - my note] and soared like European buzzards.”
So there you have it mystery patron, Turkey Vultures just happen to look like turkeys.