Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Coragyps atratus
L 24-28” / WS 55-63”

Black Vultures are social, highly gregarious birds often seen in groups with Turkey Vultures year-round where their ranges overlap. They are scavengers, but have a weakly developed olfactory system compared with Turkey Vulture, which they partly rely on to small and find decomposing animals, especially in less open areas. They also roost side by side with Turkey Vultures. Black Vulture is a common breeder across the Southeast west to central Texas, and ranging north to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but increasing in numbers farther north in recent years. Black Vulture also nests in southern Arizona but is uncommon there. It is a rare outside its mapped range. They are shy and wary birds, but are easy to approach in the southeast part of their range. Although smaller than Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures are aggressive and often chase away Turkey Vultures that may be present at a carcass. Black Vulture is often seen eating road kill, and at landfills eating refuse. They nest in the tops of broken tree trunks, in vacant buildings, or on the ground in spots with sufficient overhead cover. Black Vultures are generally silent, but occasionally make eerie ‘hissing’ sounds when aggressive, alerted, or approached.

Shape

  • Stocky overall with broad squared-off wings, small heads, and very short, narrow, square-tipped tail.
  • Feet may project beyond the tail.
  • Flat-winged soaring profile appears similar to Bald Eagle at eye level, but stockier in comparison, with smaller head and shorter tail.
  • Superficially similar to adult Common Black-Hawk but smaller unfeathered head, shorter tail, more squarish wings, and a solid black tail.
  • Perched, appear large and stocky, but small headed with an elongated bill, short winged, and short tailed.

Flight

  • Stable, moreso than Turkey Vulture, but sometimes “wobble” slightly in strong winds.
  • Soar in lazy circles with wings arched forward and held in a shallow dihedral or sometimes flat.
  • Glide with a modified dihedral, which is less exaggerated than Turkey Vulture’s.
  • Uniquely quick, shallow, ‘anxious’ wing beats for such a large bird, very different from those of eagles and Turkey Vultures.

Plumage

  • Black underneath with paler ‘silvery’ outer primaries. Only on the darkest days do they appear uniformly dark.
  • Black above; pale outer primaries are obvious, even in poor light from above.
  • Adult has unfeathered, grayish head with ivory bill.
  • Juvenile (1st-year birds) has black head and black bill, changing quickly to a paler bill with dusky tip by late fall or early winter.
  • Sexes are identical. All Black Vultures have black eyes.

Migration

  • Migration is poorly understood. Many leave their northern extreme territories in winter, but others are year-round residents.
  • Numbers seen at certain hawk watches in North America are difficult to determine if they are true migrants.
  • In southeast, distinguishing potential migrants from local residents is often impossible.
  • Sites that see concentrations of Black Vultures during fall migration are Kiptopeke State Park, VA and Cape May Point, NJ.

Distribution

(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)

Black Vulture map

Image Gallery