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Scavenger from the Sky: The Black Vulture

With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white/sliver stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. They are compact birds with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats. In flight, they hold their broad, rounded wings flat and angled slightly forward. The tail is very short and rounded. They have small, bare heads and narrow but strongly hooked bills. Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty, Black Vultures share food with relatives when feeding.

Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky birds with a teetering flight on long, broad wings. Bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors. They have long “fingers” at their wingtips and long tails that extend past their toe tips in flight. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a ‘V’ when seen head-on. They appear black from a distance but up close are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. While most of their body and fore- wing are dark, the undersides of the flight feathers (along the trailing edge and wingtips) are paler (slivery), giving a two-toned appearance.

Although strong fliers, vultures conserve energy by soaring on thermals, which can take them as much as 2 miles into the atmosphere. Their eye- sight is equally remarkable, making it easier for them to spot food.

Vultures are consummate scavengers, cleaning up the countryside one bite of their sharply hooked bill at a time, and never mussing a feather on their bald heads. As part of nature’s clean-up crew, they rid the landscape of deteriorating carcasses and help curb the spread of dangerous diseases and bacteria. Their stomachs have strong enzymes that kill off dangerous toxins and microorganisms.

Black vulture eating a carcas
Black Vulture ©Judy Walker

When these birds ride thermals they use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell, but Black Vultures aren’t nearly as accomplished sniffers. When a Turkey Vulture’s nose detects the delicious aroma of decaying flesh and descends on a carcass, the Black Vulture follows close behind. Generally, they eat only carcasses that are under 24 hours old. One-on-one at a carcass, Black Vultures lose out to the slightly larger Turkey Vulture. But flocks of Black Vultures can quickly take over a carcass and drive the more solitary Turkey Vultures away.

Vultures lack the powerful feet characteristic of other raptors like eagles and hawks. They have long toes with blunted talons, which are easier for walking. Turkey Vultures will often place one or both feet on their food when eating; Black Vultures typically do not use their feet when feeding.

Black Vulture ©Judy Walker

The legs of vultures are usually coated white, due to the dried uric acid of their excrement. Vultures will mute (excrete waste) onto their legs, serving two different purposes. In warm weather, muting on their legs serves as part of their thermoregulation – it helps to cool down their body temperature. When vultures step into a carcass, touching possibly contaminated flesh, they risk tracking bacteria around on their legs. The vultures will excrete onto their legs, and the highly acidic uric acids kill off bacteria and toxins that may be on the bird’s legs.

A habit of vultures found bothersome to those who come in close contact is their habit of vomiting when they sense danger. Since they eat enormous quantities — up to 20 percent of their body weight at a sitting — vomiting allows them to take flight much faster.

It turns out that vultures do not have a syrinx, the voice organ in birds. Therefore, they do not have songs or calls. Instead, they hiss and make grunting sounds, usually when eating or disturbed.

Although Black and Turkey Vultures live only in North and South America, the oldest fossils from this group—at least 34 million years old—were found in Europe. In the U.S., Black Vultures are outnumbered by their red-headed relatives, Turkey Vultures, but they have a huge range and are the most numerous vulture in the Western Hemisphere.

The oldest wild Black Vulture on record was at least 25 years, 6 months old and they may live even longer in captivity. The oldest recorded wild Turkey Vulture was at least 16 years, 10 months old when it was found in Ohio, the same state where it had been banded.

The word ‘vulture’ likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. The Turkey Vulture’s scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either ‘golden purifier’ or ‘purifying breeze’. The words use to describe groups of vultures include a wake (a group of vultures feeding); a committee, a venue or volt (vultures resting in trees); and a kettle (a group in flight).

A group of black vultures sitting on the ground.
A Committee of Black Vultures ©Judy Walker

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