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Black Vulture - Max[ine]                                              Photo © Michelle Brown

Turkey Vulture                                                                 Photo © Patty Wainright

Black Vulture                                                                       Photo © Sam Wainright


Turkey Vulture.                                                  Photo © Michael LaCombe


Black and Turkey Vultures

Vultures at a glance



  • Taxonomy

  • Order Cathartiformes (includes New World Vultures)

  • Family Cathartidae

  • Turkey Vulture: Cathartes aura

  • Black Vulture: Coragyps atratus


Turkey Vulture

  • Large wings: 69 inches (5.7 feet)

  • From below: Flight feathers are dark silver-grey and black linings

  • Wings held in a “V” shape

  • When in flight ‘rock back and forth’; seldom flap

  • Long Tail extending beyond feet in flight

  • Adult has red head; juvenile black head


Black Vulture

  • Short wings: 57 inches (4.7 feet)

  • From below: White primaries appear as large white patches at the tip of wing

  • Wings held flat

  • When in flight, frequently flap wings (heavily) with short glides.

  • Short tail with feet extending past tail

  • Black head 



Turkey Vulture

  • Feed primarily on carrion

  • Found in dry open country, woodlands, farmlands

  • Dainty eater, non-aggressive to timid

  • Sharp sense of smell


Black Vulture

  • Feed primarily on carrion, but will take a live meal

  • Found in open country, fish wharfs, garbage dumps

  • Gregarious and aggressive toward Turkey Vulture at food

  • No sense of smell, so sometimes rely on Turkey Vulture to find food

  • Good eyesight from great heights

  • Range expanding into Northeast


Turkey Vulture

  • Migrate to southern US and into Central America and parts of South America


Black Vulture

  • In North America, largely resident


Turkey Vulture

  • Nests May-June in shallow caves, on ground in dense brush, or hollow trees with no nesting material

  • 2 eggs; incubation 38-41 days

  • Chicks – white down with dusky bare head

  • Fledge in 70-80 days


Black Vulture

  • Nests March-May (Ohio), but variable in shallow caves, between boulders in rocky outcrops, hollow stumps, or ground at base of a tree

  • 2 eggs; incubation by both parents 38-45 days

  • Chicks – rich buff-colored down, bare head

  • Fledge in ~ 3 months

  • Young remain with parents; continue to forage with them in groups for years



Full Species Account

Once part of the Order Falconiformes that included Osprey, hawks, eagles, Secretarybird, falcons and caracaras [2] the Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture recently been reclassified, based on their DNA sequences, into the new Order Cathartiformes (New World Vultures) [1].

The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) are frequently seen in mixed flocks; however, they differ in their habits, flying abilities, preferred food, and more. Their featherless heads differ in color. The Black Vulture has a black head and the turkey vulture struts a red head, variable in hue depending on geographic location, sexual maturity, and attitude (e.g. dominance). Juvenile Turkey Vultures are less endowed – they have black heads as does the Black Vulture (easily confused). In flight, however, the Black Vulture is distinct: wings are held 180 degrees – flat; white primaries on the under-wing; and a very short tail. The Turkey Vulture’s flight is “V” shaped, the primary and secondary feathers on the under-wing are whitish-grey, and the tail is longer.


The Turkey Vulture has a very sensitive sense of smell with large nostrils on the side of its bill – it can locate food in thick forests and hidden from view. Even so, these birds avoid putrefied food – not interested – perhaps to decrease risk of bacterial toxins. Why do Black Vultures join Turkey Vultures in soaring flocks? The Black Vulture has no sense of smell. In forests where they cannot see food the Black Vultures rely on the Turkey Vulture’s large olfactory lobes to locate a carcass. The Black Vulture, though, has great vision. Over large areas of land they are more likely to fly at greater heights than the Turkey Vulture.


Vultures’ large wings are adapted for soaring – using rising thermal or mountain air currents to gain altitude. Once the bird reaches a desired altitude, it simply glides until it finds another thermal to gain height again. This energy saving strategy allows vultures to go great distances in search of scarce food. The Black Vulture, though, has smaller wings relative to body size and is a less efficient flyer than the Turkey Vulture. The Black Vulture frequently needs to flap its wings while soaring, as compared to its cousin the Turkey Vulture that rarely flaps.


The Black Vulture is more gregarious than the Turkey Vulture. They form communal roosts and feed together. One advantage is that they learn from each other where the best feeding areas are located. And for the same reason the Turkey Vulture will join the Black Vulture in roosts. Both species find benefit from each other.

Vultures do not have a syrinx (a unique sound-producing structure at the junction of the trachea and two bronchi in birds), so they cannot sing or call like most birds (4). An alarmed or agitated vulture will hiss or snort. 

The Black Vulture has the most complex social behavior of any vulture. It is family oriented. Parents and young will stay together for at least a year. They preen each other, feed each other, and protect each other from threats. Other family groups will associate together, also assisting each other in needs of survival.


Vultures are primarily scavengers. Black Vultures, however, will take live small prey including insects, berries, and fruit. Black Vultures are ‘gulpers’ and with their large gapping beak, they prefer muscle and viscera. The Turkey Vultures are dainty and pick at their food, and compared to the Black Vulture, they are courteous when sharing a carcass. The Black Vultures prefer a good brawl. They ‘arm wrestle’ – they stand one beside the other, stretch out their wings, and push against one another until the opponent falls. Or they leap at each other: they rise into the air and kick.


Vultures, being spectacular birds, were once revered as important symbols of burial rituals and the release of the human spirit. We release the spirit of Max(ine) that recently died on Peaks Island.


1. Winkler, D.W., S.M. Billerman, and I.J. Lovette. 2015. Bird Families of the World: An invitation to the Spectacular Diversity of Birds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.


2. Del Hoyo, J., A. Elliot, J. Sargatal (eds). 1994. Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol. 2. New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Ppg. 24-41. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.


3. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. 1983. National Geographic Society. Washington DC.

4. Gill, F.B. 2007. Ornithology. W.H. Freeman and Company, NY.


By: Patty Wainright

Reviewed by: Sam Wainright and Michelle Brown











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