Here’s a photo I took the other day of really big black birds that I think stopped by to enjoy a light snack of local road kill. I’ve seen the occasional turkey vulture around but never saw these guys.
I had no idea what it was, but I’ve got an aunt who is an avid naturalist, so I deferred to her.
She identified it as a Coragyps atratus, a black vulture. (They get their species name, atratus, from Latin. It means clothed in black.)
She said that her bird books still cite southern Pennsylvania as the northern range of the black vulture.
Apparently vultures are relatively recent migrants to New England.
In the early 20th century turkey vultures didn’t normally range beyond New Jersey, they were in New York by the 1920s and a nest discovered in Connecticut in 1930 heralded their entry into New England. They only made it to Maine as recently as the 1980s and have now expanded into Canada.
Black vultures were stragglers. They were seen in Massachusetts in 1954, but just started nesting there in 1999. The first confirmed nesting in Connecticut was in 2002. The black vulture’s range is not as large as the turkey vulture’s range. They prefer warmer temperatures and access to water. They appear to be following the turkey vulture in their northward spread as global warming remakes New England into their ideal territory.
They’re distinguished by their grey head that looks naked but has bristly feathers up close. (After reading more about them I’m disinclined to get close enough to check. One of their habits when disturbed is to regurgitate their last meal.) They have bulky bodies, short hooked beaks and short tails. Both black and turkey vultures have flat feet and weak toes, unlike the curling talons of eagles and hawks. That’s because they use their feet to brace themselves against carrion while they rip and tear, unlike birds of prey who use their talons for hunting.
Black vultures are more aggressive and group oriented than turkey vultures. Their aggression means that while they are carrion eaters they are more likely to kill small (or even not so small) animals and birds to eat.
Large numbers will group together to tear open large carcasses. A group will also scare a turkey vulture away from a carcass. They’re also the only New World vulture that will attack cattle. They will peck at and harass a newborn calf until it goes into shock and then kill it.
They also hunt by sight, unlike turkey vultures who forage by smell. Sometimes instead of looking for meals, they keep an eye out for what the turkey vultures are scavenging and then steal their meal. As scavengers both birds do an important job cleaning up after the rest of the living world.
Since its range runs down the Southeastern United States through to South America and they are common in Central America, the black vulture was documented in Mayan codices.
If you want more gory details, here’s an excellent page comparing the two species and describing their habits. And here’s Audubon Magazine with Sibley illustrations showing who’s who. Oops, almost forgot Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds.