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With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky birds with teetering flight, Black Vultures are compact birds with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats. The two species often associate: the Black Vulture makes up for its poor sense of smell by following Turkey Vultures to carcasses. Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty, Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged.
The Story of Stevie
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The Story of Ray
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- In the U.S., Black Vultures are outnumbered by their red-headed relatives, Turkey Vultures, but they have a huge range and are the most numerous vulture in the Western Hemisphere.
- Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell, but Black Vultures aren’t nearly as accomplished sniffers. To find food they soar high in the sky and keep an eye on the lower-soaring Turkey Vultures. When a Turkey Vulture’s nose detects the delicious aroma of decaying flesh and descends on a carcass, the Black Vulture follows close behind.
- One-on-one at a carcass, Black Vultures lose out to the slightly larger Turkey Vulture. But flocks of Black Vultures can quickly take over a carcass and drive the more solitary Turkey Vultures away.
- Black Vultures lack a voice box and so their vocal abilities are limited to making raspy hisses and grunts.
- Although Black Vultures and their relatives live only in North and South America, the oldest fossils from this group—at least 34 million years old—were found in Europe.
- The oldest Black Vulture on record was at least 25 years, 6 months old and they may live even longer in captivity.
Habitat: Black Vultures live year-round in forested and open areas of the eastern and southern United States south to South America. They have expanded their range northward in the last several decades and are now seen regularly as far north as New England. Most abundant at low elevations, they breed in dense woodlands but usually forage in open habitats and along roads. Some live in semirural suburbs. Black Vultures roost in undisturbed stands of tall trees, including sycamores, pines, hickories, oaks, junipers, and bald cypress, as well as structures like electrical pylons. Roost sites are often close to water and next to obstructions that generate updrafts of air, to help the flock take flight in the early morning.
Food: Black Vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion, locating it by soaring high in the skies on thermals. From this vantage they can spot carcasses and also keep an eye on Turkey Vultures—which have a more developed sense of smell—and follow them toward food. Black Vultures often gather in numbers at carcasses and then displace Turkey Vultures from the food. Their carrion diet includes feral hogs, poultry, cattle, donkeys, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, striped skunks, and armadillos. Sometimes Black Vultures wade into shallow water to feed on floating carrion, or to catch small fish. They occasionally kill skunks, opossums, night-herons, leatherback turtle hatchlings, and livestock, including young pigs, lambs, and calves. They also often investigate dumpsters and landfills to pick at human discards.
Nesting: Black Vultures lay their eggs directly on the ground.
Nest Placement: Black Vultures usually nest in dark cavities such as caves, hollow trees, abandoned buildings, brush piles, thickets, and stumps. Pair reuse successful sites for many years.
Behavior: Black Vultures are monogamous, staying with their mates for many years, all year round. They feed their young for as many as eight months after fledging, and maintain strong social bonds with their families throughout their lives. Black Vultures roost in large flocks in the evening, using the communal roost as a meeting place where foraging groups can assemble and adults can reconvene with their young. Unsuccessful foragers can locate food by following their roost mates to carcasses. Black Vultures aggressively prevent nonrelatives from joining them at roosts or following them to food sources. They attack each other by pecking, biting, wing-pummeling, and foot-grappling. At carcasses Black Vultures are subordinate to Crested Caracaras as well as (farther south in their range) King Vultures and Andean Condors.
Conservation: Black Vultures are numerous and their populations increased between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of this very wide-ranging bird at about 20 million, with about 9% living in the U.S. and 8% in Mexico. They rate a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. In the 1800s people regarded Black Vultures as beneficial scavengers and tolerated them around meat markets in the southeastern U.S. This attitude changed in the early twentieth century, when some people became concerned about vultures spreading disease (despite a dearth of scientific evidence). Vultures were trapped, poisoned and shot by the thousands until the 1970s. Black Vultures have also faced threats including fewer available nest sites and collisions with cars. Like other large birds they were vulnerable to egg-thinning effects of DDT in the mid-twentieth century, and along with other carrion-eaters they are susceptible to lead poisoning from lead shot that remains in carcasses. However, Black Vultures have rebounded and expanded their range considerably to the north and east. This is probably due in part to increasing availability of roadkill and warmer temperatures associated with global climate change.