birdnote q&a: vultures!

by Mike HamiltonWHO WAS THAT eyeing some roadkill alongside a few turkey vultures, a bird almost as large as the more familiar-to-me scavenger, but without the raw-looking, naked red head? It turned out to be my first closeup view of a black vulture (above), not a rare species, but one that has been pushing farther northward in its range gradually.

Maybe because it wasn’t so common in the Northeast when I first learned to ID local birds, when I see vultures overhead, I automatically register: “turkey vulture.” Not so fast, Margaret; look again. (With help from my friends at BirdNote public-radio program and elsewhere, I did.)

That day last summer, I pulled over to watch the feast. From the close vantage point, the difference seemed pretty clear: red heads (the three turkey vultures) versus a gray one. One caveat I’ve learned since is that young turkey vultures have gray heads, too, but there are other differences to confirm an ID:

The gray-headed bird was only about two-thirds turkey-vulture size, and just so black. If you come upon turkey vultures on a sunny day, you realize that they are not really black (as they appear when overhead, or in low light) but dark brown, especially their wings.

Size perspective is tricky when vultures are soaring. From that angle, it’s the contrasting pattern of pale feathers against dark underneath that now helps discern TV from BV. The almost-silvery expanse stretching under much of the wingspan of the turkey vulture is much flashier than the grayish-white mere “fingertips” of the black vulture, like a pair of white gloves on an otherwise all-black underside. Plus, the black vulture’s tail is stubbier.

Turkey Vulture-© Mike HamiltonSo what were the two species doing together? Turns out black vultures like to fly above the turkey vultures to see when the bigger birds catch a whiff of carrion, then follow them to the dinner table. The black species doesn’t have a powerful sense of smell of its own. Turkey vultures have one of nature’s best noses, and have even been known to sniff out leaks in natural-gas pipelines, like this.

Ever lie on the grass and watch the vultures soar, catching thermals above you? The poet Robinson Jeffers did, and wondered whether they were sizing up his carcass all the while, almost regretting what he had to tell the bird: “These old bones will still work; they are not for you.” His poem on the subject is a must-listen.

more curious vulture stuff

Why the naked heads? The vultures’ naked heads, whether red or gray, are an adaptation, the miracle of evolution at work. If you’re a bird whose table manners consist of sticking your head into the guts of carcasses, feathers up top are just too messy.

Indigestion? Never. If sticking your head in a carcass were not gross enough, there’s this: all that bacteria in the decaying dinner. No worry, since vultures are equipped with heavy-duty digestive systems laced with flesh-eating bacteria and stomach acids with super powers, my friends at BirdNote explain.

How big are vultures? Turkey vultures’ wingspan can approach 6 feet (black vultures more like 4½ or just under 5). If that sounds big, a bald eagle can be even bigger (to 80ish inches) and a golden eagle bigger still (up to like 86.6 inches, says Cornell’s All About Birds online). The largest wild bird in North America on that score? The California condor (wingspan up to 109ish inches, which if you’re bad at math is more than 9 feet across).

Think vultures are ugly, or prehistoric-looking, or really gorgeous? (I’m in the last camp.) Have a gander at this photo gallery of vultures around the world, called “Nature’s Cleanup Crew,” from BirdNote.

How long have black vultures been moving north? “The New York Times” reported the first confirmed nest of breeding black vultures in New Jersey in 1981; at least one scientific paper talks about the species expanding its territory since the 1920s.

They’re not the only species that has been on the move. I learned as I ricocheted around the internet and my bookshelf that the black vulture is, “part of a cluster of ‘southern species’—including red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse, Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, and Carolina wren—that have pushed their ranges hundreds of miles north in recent decades.” That quote is from a 2011 story for Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds,” by Jack Connor, called “Vultures Riding North.” The suspected trigger? You guessed it: a changing climate and other human-influenced alterations of the environment. They follow the available food, and habitat.

wake of vultures Rodney Campbell PD

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast on the player below, or by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

(Photos by Mike Hamilton, except group of turkey vultures by Rodney Campbell. Used with permission, via BirdNote.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Gauss says:

    I’ve been seeing black vultures in Connecticut for the past few years – there was a pair in the Northwest corner, near the New York border, just this past March. I was hiking with some older people who had never heard of black vultures before: maybe because the vultures are still moving into the area. Thanks for all information, now I’ll be able to identify the birds even faster.

    1. margaret says:

      So glad to hear that you, too, notice that they are different — I didn’t even know to look for them, and would have probably remained oblivious if not for the up-close treat.

  2. Joan Mc says:

    Cool info! Now I’ll keep my eyes open for the Black Vulture here in central NC. Interesting that these great birds use a keen sense of smell, a sense that is weak in most birds.

    Here’s an interesting tidbit for you on vultures. When I was touring part of India, we spent one day looking into different religions. We walked by an “arena” used by one of the religions for their dead. According to the religion, a human corpse is placed in this walled-off area specifically to await the vultures. Yup. We were too shocked to ask what happens with the bones! However, India is having a problem with a bird disease which is decimating he vulture population…..this is leading to a corpse over-stocking issue. Yikes. Clean-up crew, indeed!

  3. Deb Parker says:

    I love reading about this noble bird. One of my sad childhood experiences was seeing a dead turkey vulture. He died under my bedroom window. I ran to get Peterson guide, it was so big, I didn’t know what it was. I always look up for TV’s, and think of that day.

  4. Stella Elbaum says:

    We have flocks of Turkey vultures here in South East CT. They leave for the winter but return each spring. They seem to stick together in flocks- I’ve seen as many as 8 adults perched in trees. They are so big!

  5. Tibs says:

    I was told by farmers that black vultures are more aggressive and have been known to kill newborn lambs.
    One of my favorite cartoons shows two buzzards sitting in a dead tree. One says “Patience, hell. I’m going to kill something!”
    And what about Junior, the dim witted Looney Toon buzzard who sings “I’m bringing home a dead whatever for supper” to the tune of bringing home a baby bumble bee?
    Yeah, I like turkey buzzards. Seen a lot more this spring. I look up from gardening and tell them I ain’t dead yet.

  6. I told Margaret this last week, but two weeks ago a Turkey Vulture defecated all over me as I was walking my dogs here in Des Moines, Iowa. I live in a turn-of-the-century neighborhood at the top of a hill, where Turkey Vultures regularly gather in kettles to ride the air streams…I’ve counted up to at least 75 at one time…one hit me good with about 2 cups of poop, all over me: in my hair, on my face, all over my shearling coat…the volume was impressive.

    1. margaret says:

      I’m sure, James, that in SOME cultural tradition SOMEWHERE that is a good omen. But it sounds disgusting. : ) In the biologist Bernd Heinrich’s new book (out April 2016) he talks of a pet starling named Slick who liked to poop in Heinrich’s wife’s hair. Ugh. In autumn at the local organic farm in “town” here, huge numbers of TVs such as you describe gather in one very old, giant tree to prepare for migration, and it is quite a sight. So far I have avoided being the target of any deposits.

  7. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I have found comfort in the peaceful way vultures soar through the skies. They are here in upstate NY along the St. Lawrence River and also in mid-Florida where I like to spend my winters – and where I see the Black Vultures. It really is meditative to watch them soar a lazy spiral in the sky.

  8. Nancy Schaefer says:

    Black vultures are the common sighting here in NW Connecticut. They are pushing out the less aggressive turkey vultures. Love them both, but it is thrilling to see a turkey vulture these days.

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