Turkey Vulture vs. Black Vulture – Cathartes aura and Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture – Length: 26″; Wingspan: 67″; Weight: 4.0 lb
Black Vulture – Length: 25″; Wingspan: 59″; Weight: 4.4 lb
No, those are NOT buzzards; they are vultures. We have no buzzards in North America but we do have two types of vultures: the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture, commonly referred to as TVs and Blacks. Both are very big, very dark, and very ugly (to some) when seen on the ground. They have no feathers on their heads and dangerous looking beaks. These features are important to their life style. As you probably know from seeing them around road kill, they are carrion eaters. Their sharp beaks enable them to rip apart a carcass and the featherless heads allow them to forage deeply inside a dead animal yet avoid getting residue on their heads – not pretty but most practical.
Close up, the most obvious difference between these two vultures is the color of their heads. The Turkey Vulture has a bright red head while the Black’s is dark gray. On the wing, the TV seems to be soaring unsteadily, tipping from side to side with its wings in a V-shape. It uses very few wing beats as it glides along and the “fingers” at the ends of its wings are distinctive. From beneath, the TV’s wings in flight appear to be two-toned with black on the top edge and gray on the bottom.
In contrast, the Black is stubbier in shape with a shorter tail and thicker wings. It tends to flap its wings more and has less of a V shape when gliding than the TV. A definite identifier for the Black are the white “windows” at the ends of its wings. Watch for them as the bird flies overhead.
It is more likely that a birder will see a vulture in the sky than on the ground. They ride the thermals to reach heights which allow them to see great distances. Both are very strong fliers, often flying near one another, using their keen eyesight to spot carrion. The TV also has exceptional sense of smell which gives it an advantage in locating carcasses. The Black makes up for its disadvantage by watching the Turkey Vulture and following it when it descends.
There seem to be more Blacks than Turkey Vultures. In fact, the reverse is true in the U.S. but the very social nature of the Blacks means we see them in groups while the TV flies and may even eat alone. One on one, the Black will lose out against the bigger TV. However, if both are at a carcass, a flock of Blacks can take over from the singular TV.
Neither the TV nor the Black actually builds a nest. They use hollowed trees or stumps, thickets, caves and even abandoned buildings to have their young. Once found, a pair may reuse the sight for several years.
If you would like to learn more about these birds visit:
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birders: Turkey Vulture
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birders: Black Vulture
Article submitted by: Marcia Hider
Photographs provided by: Charley Moore & Misc
This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents. When possible we will use photographs taken by our members. Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.