Bedford Audubon Society

A Northern Westchester & Eastern Putnam Counties, New York
Chapter of the National Audubon Society

Celebrating 98 Years of Conservation 1913-2011

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Turkey and Black Vultures
By Tait Johansson

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) are two of the most conspicuous birds in our area. Both our vultures are large, mostly dark-colored birds which soar above the landscape searching for their primary food, carrion, making them visible at great distances. While not the most attractive of birds up close, our vultures can be beautiful in the air, and they provide a valuable service by cleaning up dead animals, acids in the vulture’s digestive tract killing potentially dangerous bacteria.

Black Vulture (top) and Turkey Vulture

In flight, it is fairly easy to distinguish the two. The Turkey Vulture is the more common. It flies in a characteristic shallow V-shape and has a rocking, unstable-seeming flight. Black Vultures hold their wings more or less flat when soaring, which makes their flight look more stable. The Turkey Vulture’s plumage is a dark brown, with a silvery wash on the underside of the flight feathers. Black Vultures have a much shorter tail than Turkey Vultures, so short that their feet are sometimes visible beyond their tail’s end. Black Vultures are slightly smaller and nearly all black with a silvery-white patch on its outer primary feathers (at the tip of the wing).

Interestingly, Black Vultures, like most other birds, lack a sense of smell, while this sense is highly developed in Turkey Vultures and is their primary method of locating the rotting carcasses they eat. Because of this, Black Vultures often follow Turkey Vultures to locate food. Turkey Vultures were (and sometimes still are) used by natural gas companies to pinpoint pipeline leaks. Natural gas is by itself odorless, so gas companies add the chemical ethyl mercaptan to it so that people can smell gas leaks. As it happens, ethyl mercaptan is one of the chemicals emitted by putrefying animal carcasses, and so, strangely, leaks in natural gas pipelines attract congregations of Turkey Vultures.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture

Both species choose a wide variety of nest sites in a wide variety of habitats, including crevices in rocky cliffs, the ground under dense shrubbery, hollow trees and stumps, and abandoned buildings. Should you actually find a nest of either of these species, be sure not to get too close to it, since in addition to the normal reasons for not disturbing nesting birds, the young of both vulture species have the charming habit of vomiting partially-digested carrion on intruders, apparently hoping to fend off potential nest predators by grossing them out.

Photo of Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture Courtesy of and Copyright © by Curtis Lew

Photo of Turkey Vulture Courtesy of and Copyright © Richard L. Becker

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