TURKEY VULTURE/BLACK VULTURE

   Within living memory New England had no resident vultures. In the opening years of the 20th century the turkey vulture’s range didn’t extend beyond New Jersey, although stragglers were occasionally spotted farther north. By the 1920s, however, turkey vultures were showing up in New York State on a regular basis. In 1930 a turkey vulture nest discovered in Connecticut marked the species’ first confirmed nesting in New England. Turkey vultures nested in Massachusetts for the first time in 1954, and now they are firmly established in the state as both breeding birds and migrants. By the early 1970s they had pushed into New Hampshire and by the early 1980s they could be seen in Maine.

   Black vultures were slower to move into New England. They were first recorded as visitors to Massachusetts in 1954, the same year that turkey vultures began nesting here. Black vultures nested in Massachusetts for the first time in 1999; the first confirmed nesting in Connecticut came in 2002. Since both the turkey vulture and the black vulture are newly established as New England residents, since they can be found together, and because they lead a similar scavenging lifestyle yet exhibit a wide variety of differences, the two species will be considered here side by side.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Weight: 56-83 ounces (average of 64 ounces)
Length: 24-28 inches
Wingspan: 63-71 inches

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Weight: 56-81 ounces (average of 68 ounces)
Length: 23-28 inches
Wingspan: 55-63 inches

GENERAL APPEARANCE – Turkey Vulture
ADULT – This is a big, dark bird which when perched suggests a particularly unfortunate specimen of poultry. Indeed, the turkey vulture gets its common name from the fact that its red, wrinkled head and dark body give it more than a passing resemblance to a wild turkey. The almost featherless head and neck are a bright purplish red and are sparsely covered with short, dark bristle feathers that are not visible from a distance. Because the head is bare of visible feathers it appears small. It is furrowed with wrinkles that become more pronounced as turkey vultures age. There is a semicircular pattern of whitish to greenish papillae or warts around the birds’ eyes that varies from one individual to another. These papillae may be caused by bacterial infections resulting from constant exposure to rotting meat. The male’s head has a wattled look, but this is the only outward difference between the genders, which are alike in size and color. The nasal septum, a thin partition between the two nostrils, has a hole in it (this is true of all New World vultures), so an observer can look right through a turkey vulture’s nostrils. Which means that a turkey vulture, should it be so inclined, can wear a nose ring. The beak is cream-colored and long, hooked only at the tip. The eyes are grayish brown.

   The body plumage is brownish black, with a pronounced brown cast to the back. The soft feathers that encase the lower neck form a ruff, like a thick scarf, and these feathers really are beautiful, with a blue or purplish sheen. The legs are bare of feathers and are visible when the turkey vulture is perched. They are pale red and may be streaked with white excrement.

IMMATURE – Turkey vultures take two years to develop their adult coloration. Young birds less than one year old have a distinctly browner cast to their body plumage. Their heads are the color of soot and covered with a fine brown fuzz, like a balding man with a buzz cut. The wrinkles, wattles and warts that individualize the adults aren’t present in young birds. The neck ruff lacks the striking iridescence of the adult birds. The beak is dark, with an ivory base. As the young bird passes its first birthday and becomes a subadult, the head turns pink. The beak of a subadult is two-toned, cream with a dark tip.

GENERAL APPEARANCE – Black Vulture
ADULT – Black vultures are slightly heavier on average than turkey vultures. Like turkey vultures, they have a hunched look when perched. The skin of the head and neck is gray and furrowed with wrinkles. From a distance it appears bare; a close-up inspection reveals a sparse covering of short bristle feathers. The beak, with the see-through nostrils that characterizes New World vultures, is dark with an ivory lower half. The beak is thinner and longer than that of a turkey vulture. The eyes are brown. Body plumage is, as the species’ common name suggests, a deep black. A running purply sheen marks the back and upperwing coverts. The legs are visible when the bird is perched. They are whitish and often further whitened by streaks of excrement. The tail is short.

IMMATURE - Young black vultures are similar to adults but have black heads rather than gray ones. Their heads lack the wrinkles of the adults and are clothed in soot-colored down. The beaks are dark without a pale tip. The dark body plumage lacks the sheen of the adults’.

APPEARANCE IN FLIGHT – Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture is incomparably graceful in flight, which is why Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Soaring” depicts turkey vultures riding air currents. When the bird spreads its 5 ½-foot wingspan and is viewed from below, the wings are noticeably two-toned. The primary, secondary and tail feathers are silvery, in contrast to the black wing lining. The silvery or gray look to the underside of the flight feathers is only visible from below. From above, the outer primaries have a golden look. The upswept wings are held in a V-shape, and the outer six primary feathers are open like curving fingers. The long, narrow tail is not usually fanned out in flight. It appears gray, darker than the silver of the primary and secondary feathers. The species’ red head is not easily seen when turkey vultures are soaring. On the wing the birds keep their heads pulled into their neck ruffs to conserve heat.

APPEARANCE IN FLIGHT – Black Vulture
Like the turkey vulture, the black vulture exhibits two-toned wings in flight. The outer six primary feathers of this species’ wings are greyish, with pure white shafts. From below the contrast between the dark body and wings and the light-colored outer primaries is very obvious. The contrast is almost as obvious from above, as when the bird is sunning itself with outstretched wings. The thick white shafts resemble skeletal fingers.

FLIGHT – Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures are masterful fliers, and can be instantly recognized by their flying style. The turkey vulture wingspan averages 5 ½ feet. The wings are narrower than those of the black vulture, the tail is longer, and the turkey vulture averages less in weight. All these factors add up to lower wing loading, which means that the turkey vulture has a lot of wing area compared to its weight. Low wing loading makes for graceful flying, and turkey vultures can ride air currents for hours with little or no flapping. As they soar, they hold their wings in a V-shape. This tell-tale shape of wings angled above the horizontal is called a dihedral, and turkey vultures (unlike eagles and hawks which tend to soar on flat wings) fly with a pronounced dihedral.

   In flight the outermost six primary feathers are splayed open like the curved fingers of a hand to give the bird more lift. Because these primary feathers, the longest of the ten primaries, can be moved individually, this species has superb flight control. A turkey vulture can stay aloft at very slow speeds without stalling and falling.

   Turkey vultures have a large expanse of wing but are relatively light in weight, so they are not steady while soaring the way eagles are. Instead turkey vultures characteristically rock and sway on the air currents. When the currents become strong, the wings may be angled back, and frequently the wings are flexed below the horizontal until the bird is bow-shaped in outline. When turkey vultures do need to flap their wings, their wingbeats are measured and deep. The long wings give the impression of flexibility.

FLIGHT – Black Vulture
This species’ soaring style is very different from the turkey vulture’s. Black vultures are heavier on average, yet have a smaller wing surface, so their wing loading is higher. This means they must rely on stronger thermals than turkey vultures, so black vultures soar higher. When they soar their wings do not show the marked dihedral of the turkey vulture. Typically black vultures soar on horizontal wings or with wings held slightly above the horizontal. When they glide downward the wings are held flat.

   The black vulture’s flapping style is likewise very different from the turkey vulture’s. This species is more stockily proportioned and needs to flap more often to keep itself aloft. The wingbeats are fast (one field guide characterizes them as “almost frantic”) and shallow, like those of a crow or blue jay. As the wings are flapped they’re pushed forward and give the impression of being held stiffly, awkwardly, as though the bird were out of condition. Three to five wingbeats are followed by a “blundering glide” (from Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World by Brown and Amadon). The pale legs, held tucked up in flight, reach almost to the tip of the short, squared tail. The tail is so short that it doesn’t reach much beyond the back edge of the wings.

   Black vultures are still uncommon in New England, and when they are spotted here, they’re often in the company of turkey vultures. When the two species are seen soaring together, the differences between them are immediately obvious. The black vulture, with its choppy wingbeats and labored glides, cannot match the turkey vulture’s majesty in the air.

RANGE – Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture has a wider distribution than the black vulture and, as we have already seen, it has been steadily expanding its range northward in the last century. This species is found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. It ranges from eastern Canada down to the tip of South America. The species is not evenly distributed over this vast range. In the United States it occurs in the greatest numbers in the South.

RANGE – Black Vulture
This species does not enjoy the wide range of the turkey vulture. The black vulture shows a strong preference for living near water, and it is absent from the arid states of the West. In the East it occurs in the Atlantic Coast states, extending now from Massachusetts down to Florida, and west to Texas with an isolated population in Arizona. It is most abundant in the Southeastern states, particularly Florida.

   Black vultures also range down through Mexico and Central America well into South America, although they aren’t found south of Peru. They are very common in Central and South America.

TERRITORY – Turkey Vulture
This species requires a very large territory because the space must fulfill three requirements: It must provide a dependable supply of carrion; it must contain a suitable roosting site; and it must be equipped with safe nesting sites. Turkey vultures do not defend a relatively small territory, as many species do. Instead they range over dozens of square miles, returning to a home roost in late afternoon. The nesting sites may be a considerable distance away. In fact, turkey vultures don’t appear to defend their territory at all.

TERRITORY – Black Vulture
Like turkey vultures, black vultures range over a wide space without defending it. They have the same three general requirements of a constant food supply and roosting and nesting sites. This adaptable species seems able to coexist with people quite successfully, and in the tropics particularly has become a suburban and even an urban resident. A city territory, because of an everpresent supply of garbage and roadkill, would be smaller than a rural one.

FOOD – Turkey Vulture
Vultures are scavengers, which means that they eat animals that are already dead. Turkey vultures typically feed on smaller carcasses than black vultures do. In fact, turkey vultures seem to have evolved to exploit a particular food niche – carcasses of small animals, which they locate wholly or in part with their sense of smell. Mammals eaten range in size from mice to deer to livestock like cows and horses. Reptiles, amphibians and birds are also eaten when available. When turkey vultures feed on large animals they feed in groups, often in association with black vultures. At such times the turkey vulture plays second fiddle, allowing the black vulture to take control of the carcass.

   One reason for the turkey vulture’s expansion northward is the U.S.’s vast highway system, which provides the vulture with a constant source of roadkill. Another is our creation of landfills and garbage dumps. Live prey is occasionally taken, although the victim is invariably small and weak or dying. The turkey vulture is well known for haunting heron and ibis rookeries and stealing eggs and nestling birds, living and dead. I have to wonder if one factor in the turkey vulture’s colonization of New England might be the comeback of the great blue heron. Now we have extensive heron rookeries in Massachusetts, and perhaps these serve as a significant food source for turkey vultures, at least in summer. There are a few reports of this species fishing.

   Sometimes the food consumed is not animal flesh. Turkey vultures have been known to eat other animals’ excrement. They have also been recorded eating rotting fruit and vegetables. In at least one case the food eaten was pumpkins, although this may well reflect desperation on the vulture’s part.

FOOD – Black Vulture
Black vultures and turkey vultures make different food choices. Black vultures routinely feed on larger carcasses. This species is more gregarious and more aggressive than the turkey vulture. Once a carcass is located, black vultures descend on it in large numbers. In areas where the two species occur together, the black vulture’s numbers and aggressive behavior drive the more passive turkey vulture away from food. That aggression also means that black vultures are more apt to eat live food. They have been seen fishing, and they have also been observed ganging up on live skunks and opossums and tearing the hapless victims apart. They routinely eat nestling birds, from seabirds to herons, and they congregate in large numbers on tropical beaches to harvest hatchling sea turtles. Eggs are eaten as well, from bird to reptile. Newborn mammals such as pigs and calves may be killed, or the afterbirth may be consumed. There are reports of black vultures snipping the tails off small mammals, and having handled this species and seen how it pulls on anything stringlike I can well believe it.

   Excrement is also eaten, as are fruits and vegetables. Avocados and the fruit of the oil palm are recorded as having been consumed. Whether this happens because the vulture can’t find anything better to eat or because this species considers vegetal matter to be a reasonable food choice, consumed whenever it’s handy, I don’t know.

FEEDING METHODS – Turkey Vulture
Like all vultures, turkey vultures literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from, so they need to eat as much as possible whenever they find food. And wherever they find it. Vulture feet are very different from the grasping raptorial toes of eagles and hawks. Vultures by contrast have straight, relatively weak toes and blunt talons that are designed to brace the birds as they pull at a carcass with their beaks. Because they don't have strong, grasping toes, vultures can’t carry food in their feet. They have to eat at the food source. Turkey vultures typically feed on smaller carcasses than black vultures do, and they eat differently. They are hierarchical feeders, eating in turns with the alpha, dominant male going first. Lesser individuals wait their turn without complaint. All eat as much as they can hold (or as long as the food holds out), because they may have to feed young. And since they can’t carry food back to the nesting site in their feet, they’ll carry it in their crops and regurgitate it for the hungry chicks.

FEEDING METHODS – Black Vulture
Black vultures specialize in eating larger carcasses than turkey vultures do, and they may depend on numbers to open up something as big as a pig or cow. The word vulture comes from the Latin word vellere, which means “to tear.” And that’s exactly what black vultures do. Their beak is not strongly compressed in a hook shape the way an eagle’s beak is; consequently it lacks the tearing power of a raptorial beak. Black vultures make up for this lack with quantity. In the South, dozens of these birds will congregate at a carcass. Their first move is to try to break into the body by entering through a natural opening like the anus or an eye socket. If the skin is too thick to allow that, the birds pull at the carcass in unison, tearing it in different directions. Without plenty of partners to help open up the carcass, black vultures may only be able to eat easily removed tissue such as tongues and eyes.

   The feet are used to brace the birds as they yank at the carcass with their hooked beaks. The short tail is also used as a brace, and may become quite worn-looking over time. Now the reason that vultures have virtually bare heads and necks becomes clear. The long neck emerges from the neck ruff and the head and neck are inserted deep into the carcass. If they were thickly feathered, they would be covered in hard-to-remove gore, not to mention bacteria. For purposes of hygiene the neck and head are almost featherless.

HUNTING STRATEGIES – Turkey Vulture
There are seven species of vulture found in the New World and three of them, including the turkey vulture, have evolved a well-developed sense of smell to sniff out rotting meat. Old World vultures do not do this. In fact, birds as a group do not have a good sense of smell, and the exceptions to this general rule are few. The turkey vulture and two close relatives (the lesser yellow-headed vulture and the greater yellow-headed vulture) have now been proven to be among the exceptions by researchers David Houston and Kenneth Stager. Until these men did their field work, the idea that turkey vultures used olfaction (a sense of smell) to find food was controversial. Particularly since no less an authority than John James Audubon said it wasn’t so. Audubon did some experimenting by putting smelly carcasses under cover and waiting for turkey vultures to detect the meat by smell. When no vultures showed up, he concluded that they couldn’t be finding their food by scenting it out and published his conclusions in 1826.

   The problem was that Audubon was apparently using meat that was too rotten. It isn’t true that vultures will eat any old thing. Turkey vultures in captivity eat fresh meat with every evidence of enjoyment. Ecologist David Houston, working in the tropics, hid chicken carcasses in varying stages of decay. His research showed that turkey vultures cannot detect freshly-killed carcasses by smell. By the second or third day, as the meat begins to rot, the birds can and do find their way to the carcasses. However, by the fourth day, when the chickens were in an advanced state of decay and therefore very smelly, turkey vultures rarely showed any interest. Houston concluded that by that point there would be such a high level of microtoxins present in the putrescent meat that it would be dangerous to eat even for a vulture.

   Other researchers working with condors in Peru verify the turkey vulture’s ability to sniff out hidden meat. Despite the researchers’ attempts to hide carcasses meant for Andean condors, the local turkey vultures always found the meat, often walking right into the researchers’ camp to uncover the booty. Always the vultures came from downwind.

   This is not to say that turkey vultures hunt exclusively by smell. They use an efficient combination of sight and smell. This species typically soars about 200 feet in the air or even lower, cruising just above the treetops. At that height the birds can scent out a carcass, but not higher. On these searching flights the vultures are also using their very sharp eyesight to spot food. Once it is sighted, another vulture strategy comes into play. These birds watch each other as they food-search. When food is sighted, the finder circles above it for some time, alerting the other vultures in the vicinity to the presence of a meal. When one bird drops down, they all drop.

   Because the turkey vulture and its tropical relatives the lesser and greater yellow-headed vultures are skillful at finding food hidden by forest cover, the tropical rainforests of Central and South America are well populated with vultures. The black vulture and a huge and colorful species known as the king vulture lack a well-developed sense of smell, but they’re very good at spotting turkey vultures dropping down on a carcass. So five species of vultures live in the rainforests of tropical America. Africa, by contrast, is devoid of vultures in its forests, since no Old World vulture has evolved a good sense of smell.

HUNTING STRATEGIES – Black Vulture
Black vultures do not have a well-developed olfactory sense, but their eyesight is very keen. The birds watch each other as they soar, and they also watch turkey vultures. Black vultures typically soar higher than turkey vultures, but as soon as they see a vulture of any species dropping purposefully, down they come. And they have no mercy on the competition. Black vultures immediately shoulder the more timid turkey vultures out of the way and take control of the carcass. They have even been observed stealing tidbits right out from under the beak of a feeding Andean condor. They may stake out a likely source of food, such as a garbage dump or slaughterhouse, and keep it under constant watch. Once food is located, black vultures circle above it for some time, apparently to signal the find to others.

MIGRATION – Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures from northern areas migrate, some traveling thousands of miles to Central or South America. Others travel only as far as the southeastern U.S. In New England both our resident turkey vultures and those that breed farther north may be seen on migration. Fall migration is relatively late, in October and November. Spring migration is from February through May. Many of the turkey vultures seen during migration are probably subadults, one-year-old birds that have not yet reached breeding age. In Massachusetts Mt. Wachusett is a good observation point, as is the Quabbin Reservoir. Based on personal observation, I think that turkey vultures that nest in Massachusetts don’t really migrate. These breeding adults simply wander southward during the coldest weather in December, January and February. By late winter the birds are back, and I now consider the first sighting of a returning turkey vulture in March to be a sign that spring is on the way. During the particularly mild winter of 2001-2002 turkey vultures in Massachusetts apparently stayed put and could be seen soaring over the highways even in January and February.

MIGRATION – Black Vulture
Black vultures are nonmigratory, although individuals wander. They have been observed in Massachusetts in every month of the year.

RELATIONSHIPS – Turkey Vulture & Black Vulture
Until recently, all the diurnal raptors were lumped together in one huge, motley group called Falconiformes. Within this order ornithologists recognized five smaller groups or families. These were: The seven New World species of vultures, which included the turkey vulture and the black vulture, as well as the California condor and the Andean condor; eagles, hawks, kites and Old World vultures; falcons and caracaras, which are long-legged, heavy-beaked birds found only in the New World; the secretary bird, living only in Africa; and the osprey.

   The family of New World vultures, which are quite different in appearance and behavior from Old World vultures, were thought to be only distantly related to the other diurnal birds of prey. But some ornithologists doubted that there was any relationship. They pointed out that there were many important similarities between New World vultures and storks. From the structure of their thigh muscles, which is very similar, to the fact that both groups are voiceless, to the tendency of both groups to excrete on their legs, New World vultures and storks seemed to have a great deal in common.

   Now DNA analysis has proved what previously could only be suspected: New World vultures are indeed closely related to storks and not to raptors. As a consequence, the seven species of New World vultures are now grouped with storks in a family called the Ciconiidae, and the old order known as Falconiformes has been discarded. All the diurnal raptors, from eagles to falcons to hawks to Old World vultures, are now put in the order Ciconiiformes, along with New World vultures and their relatives the storks. There are 25 other families in this huge order, including shorebirds, herons and penguins.

VOCALIZATIONS
Birds don’t have a larynx as we do. Instead they have a syrinx, or voice box, that uses airflow from the lungs to produce sound. Songbirds that produce complex and varied calls have a wide range of specialized muscles in their syrinxes. New World vultures, however lack these muscles and are correspondingly voiceless. They cannot produce far-carrying contact calls to mates or territorial calls to competitors. New World vultures do produce some sounds, notably an emphatic hiss used as a warning by all ages.
Turkey Vulture – This species sometimes grunts. One researcher has noted that turkey vultures can produce a loud growl resembling the sound made by some of the big heron species. Both sounds are only audible close-up.
Black Vulture – This is an aggressive species that often squabbles with other vultures over feeding rights. Consequently it’s a bit more vocal than the turkey vulture. It grunts and snarls when jockeying for position at a carcass. The chicks produce a low “woof” when disturbed. At least one reference book (Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World by Brown and Amadon) says that “Adult also utters a croaking ‘coo’ like a pigeon.” These sounds can only be heard close-up.

SUNNING – Turkey Vulture & Black Vulture

Both Old World and New World vultures typically begin their day at a roosting site by spreading both wings wide. Storks do this as well. Researchers have pondered (and argued over) the reasons for this behavior for decades. There is a consensus now that sunning serves several functions:

1)

The heat of the sun helps to keep flight feathers in the correct shape. Bent feathers can be repaired by the application of warmth.
2) The combination of sunlight on preening oils may help the birds synthesize vitamin D.
3)

In the case of the turkey vulture, the bird’s body temperature drops at night to conserve energy. In order to fly, the bird must raise its body temperature back to normal. It does this by shivering and sunning.
4)

Black and turkey vultures roost communally and may be more exposed to the elements than birds that roost individually. The raised-wings posture may help these two species dry out their flight feathers after a wet night.

SELF-DEFENSE – Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures have evolved a particularly repellant but extremely efficient means of protecting themselves from predators. If they’re agitated, they vomit the contents of their crop and stomach. The vomit is projectile, meaning that it may be hurled some distance, and the vultures can aim. Not only is the vomit putrid (consider what the birds have been feeding on) but the mess regurgitated from the stomach will contain acid, which will burn. If this appalling defense mechanism doesn’t work, turkey vultures play dead.

SELF-DEFENSE – Black Vulture
Black vultures also projectile-vomit, but this is an aggressive species that doesn’t hesitate to attack a would-be predator, hissing, biting and flapping its large wings in the intruder’s face. Researchers working with black vultures have learned to expect an assault when the birds are cage-trapped for research. Turkey vultures, says David Kirk (quoted in Vulture: Nature’s Ghastly Gourmet by Wayne Grady) “are completely passive. When you go up to them they just play possum.” If he cage-trapped both species together, “When I went to take them out the turkey vultures would lie down on the ground and the black vultures would climb up on their bodies to get at me.”

UROHIDROSIS – Turkey Vulture & Black Vulture
In the avian world, only storks and a few New World vultures have evolved this method for cooling down. The word means to sweat by urination, and turkey vultures and black vultures achieve this by excreting on their legs. As the moisture in the excrement evaporates the bird is cooled. Birds have no sweat glands and have evolved a variety of ways to cool off. Urohidrosis is arguably the most grotesque.

   Black vultures also excrete on their legs when they’re agitated (presumably because stress raises their body temperature). Researchers have learned the hard way that wild black vultures become agitated when handled.

ROOSTING – Turkey Vulture
This species forms large communal roosts. After a day spent in food-searches and feeding, turkey vultures return to the same roost for the night. Large trees are the usual roosting site, but buildings and radio towers may be used as well. Dozens of birds may occupy the site, which can be used year after year. The birds don’t leave the area until the sun is well up and thermals have begun to form. They leave individually. Nesting areas are separate from roosting areas, but the communal roost will be used throughout the breeding season by subadults too young to breed.

ROOSTING – Black Vulture
Black vultures also form large communal roosts, and may roost with turkey vultures. The roosts may contain thousands of individuals. Black vultures leave the roosting area about an hour later than turkey vultures because their heavier wing loading means they need more powerful thermals to stay aloft. The birds leave the site in groups rather than individually, as turkey vultures do.

BREEDING BEHAVIOR – Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures are monogamous and mate for life. A small group may indulge in a display dance on their nesting grounds.

BREEDING BEHAVIOR – Black Vulture
Black vultures have one mate at a time, but they may choose a new partner the next breeding season. Group flying displays of circling and pursuit, the males chasing the females, seem to be the norm. Then the ardent couples drop to the ground and courting males display before the females they hope to impress. They prance and wing-flap, then lower their heads and give off, says Audubon, “a puffing sound, which is by no means musical.”

NEST, EGGS AND YOUNG – Turkey Vulture
No New World vulture constructs a nest. Writing in Vulture: Nature’s Ghastly Gourmet, Wayne Grady sums up the situation: “For all vultures, the word ‘nest’ is always a verb, never a noun.” Which means that while vultures certainly nest, they do not make nests. Turkey vultures lay their eggs in rock caves or rock falls on talus slopes, in a hollow stump or on the ground in dense cover. The nesting area is quite separate from the roosting area and is located in a remote, hilly place. Turkey vultures nest in pairs, not communally.

   Usually two eggs are produced and they are laid directly on the ground. No attempt is made to provide any padding or protection. The eggs are typically positioned in an area of heavy shade, to prevent them from addling while the parents are away on food-searches. Both parents incubate the eggs, and a good thing, because the incubation period is lengthy – 38 to 41 days. In Connecticut and Massachusetts egg-laying gets underway in April or May.

   The newly-hatched young are covered with a thick coat of pure white down. Both parents brood and feed the growing youngsters. The young develop slowly, which is the pattern with big birds. Fledging, the ability to fly, doesn’t occur until the chicks are 11 weeks old, and all that time the young turkey vultures depend upon their parents for food. Since vultures cannot carry food in their feet as eagles and hawks can, and don’t seem to like to carry it in their beaks (perhaps rotting carrion falls apart too easily), they’ve evolved another way to feed their young. They regurgitate partially digested food, which the young birds eat by inserting their beaks into their parents’ mouths and slurping away. This method of feeding is messy and smelly, and both the parents and the chicks will vomit if an intruder appears. In consequence the nesting areas are extremely foul-smelling places. I wonder, but cannot prove, if turkey vultures find their concealed nests by each one’s individual odor.

   Even after fledging, young turkey vultures remain dependent upon their parents for food for several months. This long dependency period means that this species only breeds every other year, and typically two eggs are produced, rarely three. This slow reproductive rate is one reason turkey vultures are declining in number.

NEST, EGGS AND YOUNG – Black Vulture
Black vultures are not nest builders any more than turkey vultures are. Eggs are laid in hollow stumps or tree bases, in depressions under rocks, in rock caves or in thick vegetation. In Central and South America the species may nest fairly high up in the nooks and crannies of city buildings. Good nesting sites, offering protection yet easy access, are limited, so the nests of necessity may be fairly close together.

   Two eggs, two days apart, are laid directly onto the nest surface. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch in 32 to 39 days. The eggs will hatch in the order they were laid, and the older chick may be significantly larger than its younger sibling for a few weeks. In contrast to turkey vulture chicks, with their coats of pure white down, the downy covering of black vulture chicks is cinnamon-pink. Their vulturine faces peer from the thick wrapping of down like heads of nightmarish puppets plunked onto teddy bear bodies. These are not cute babies.

   After the chicks hatch, they are brooded for about five days by both parents. When the chicks can regulate their own body temperature and can be safely left behind, the parents spend most of the day in food-searching. Like turkey vultures, black vultures carry food back to their nests in their crops and regurgitate it for their chicks. The young are fed three times a day. They take 10 to 11 weeks to fledge and are fed by the parents for several months after that.

STATUS – Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures have expanded their range northward in the last century. At the same time they have been declining in number in the South, where historically they have been most numerous. One reason is their slow rate of reproduction juxtaposed with the increasing hazards of the modern world. Habitat loss is a huge problem, as suitable roosting and nesting sites are taken over for human development.

   Human persecution, while now illegal, in the past destroyed large numbers of turkey vultures. It was thought that the birds spread livestock diseases. They do not; turkey vultures actually help to prevent the spread of disease. Writes Wayne Grady in Vulture: Nature’s Ghastly Gourmet: “The acid in a vulture’s digestive tract is so strong that botulism and cholera bacteria that would wipe out whole villages pass through a vulture like milk through a baby, and studies of vulture excrement show that they actually help control serious outbreaks of anthrax in cattle and swine when they eat infected carcasses; their stomachs destroy the bacteria that cause the diseases.”

   Vultures deserve our protection, for their own interesting sakes as much as for any good they might do us, and in fact they are protected by law from shooting or harassment. Despite this turkey vultures are decreasing, and have been placed on the Audubon Society Blue List, indicating that the species’ status is being carefully watched.

STATUS – Black Vulture
Like the turkey vulture, the black vulture has been unfairly persecuted as a spreader of disease. This is still a common species over its range, but it has declined in the Southeast due in large part to loss of good nesting habitat. Timber management removes old trees that might offer hollow snags and stumps. Abandoned buildings that were not uncommon in the Depression years are now hard to find as well, with the result that the black vulture is often forced to nest in dense vegetation, where the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predation.

   In the 1940s and 1950s an aggressive campaign against black vultures was waged in the South, especially in Florida and Texas. Hundreds of thousands of birds were trapped and killed. Such persecution is illegal now, but the prejudices and ignorance that brought it about have not completely disappeared. This species, like the turkey vulture, should be monitored carefully by researchers.


Copyright 2001-2002 WINGMASTERS. All rights reserved, including the right
to reproduce this website or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
Artwork and images are copyright WINGMASTERS

Site Design by AllStarWebDesigns.com