Alaskans have been spotting turkey vultures all over the state this year

A large bird flies across a blue sky.
A turkey vulture near the Grand River in Kitchener, Ontario. (Creative Commons photo by Liam Quinn)

Kyle Joseph said his uncle recently told him about spotting a strange looking bird in the Yukon Flats village of Chalkyitsik

“He said there was a weird eagle flying around and it had a red beak, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK,'” said Joseph.

Then Joseph saw the bird himself, while out helping his aunt cut firewood.

“It flew by, and it was like nothing I had ever seen,” he said.

Joseph said the bird landed on a cache and he was able to get close.

“I slowly walked up to and took a picture of it, and I was like, ‘What the heck,’” he said. “And then I looked it up, and it was a turkey vulture.”

A blurry photo of a big bird on a roof.
A slightly blurry photo captured of the turkey vulture atop a cache in Chalkyitsik. (Kyle Joseph photo)

Turkey vultures are uncommon to Alaska, but residents have reported spotting the raptor in a few locations in the state this year.

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Joseph said he suspects the bird was drawn in by a pile of moose meat scraps. Turkey vultures survive on carrion — the flesh of dead animals.

“It looked like someone had dropped their waste back near the lake for the crows and stuff,” said Joseph. “And it would just fly over there, pick up a little chunk of meat and fly up into the trees.”

Joseph said he posted about the sighting on Facebook and received a lot of comments.

“Nobody’s ever seen a vulture in our area before,” he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service migratory bird biologist Jim Johnson said the turkey vulture sighting in Chalkyitsik was preceded by a sighting earlier this year in the Northwest Alaska village of Noatak, and later in Juneau, as well as a few earlier year observations as far north as Utqiaġvik.

“With their bright red, featherless heads, you just can’t mistake them for anything else,” he said.

Johnson said although the bird’s normal range only extends to southern Canada, turkey vultures are migratory raptors built to fly long distances.

“They’re really fascinating birds. They weigh about 3 pounds and have six-foot wingspans, which enable them to ride thermals or rising warm air, and it’s not unusual for a bird to be able to travel 100-200 miles per day without flapping, just soaring,” he said.

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Predisposed to marathon travel in search of carrion, Johnson suspects the turkey vultures spotted in Alaska follow geographic corridors north.

“Entering our state via large river systems or following the slopes of large mountain ranges like the Alaska Range,” he said.

Johnson said there’s broader evidence that the nomadic turkey vulture is expanding north, adding that Alaska is a place where migratory birds often show up outside their normal ranges. 

“Alaska is really a nexus for birds from all over the world,” he said.

Johnson said there’s hundreds of birds uncommon to Alaska that sporadically show up in the state, but many less distinctive species go unnoticed. 

He applauded observers Kyle Joseph of Chalkyitsik for taking a picture of the turkey vulture and sharing it.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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