A Vulture Primer

Ok, so here’s the deal. I love vultures. I know, I know, I say I love a lot of things, but I really love vultures. Their ugliness is enigmatic and engaging really. Their antics are amusing, and their natural history is just beyond fun. I have decided to educate the masses on the differences between the rather odd looking turkey vulture and the somewhat less odd looking black vulture. Prepare for an educational edutaining adventure into the world of necrovorism…(I made up that word by the way, let me know if it’s for real).

First, a brief history of vultures. Vultures as a group are split into new world and old world. The ones here in the U.S. are new world vultures. Just so you know, almost anything labeled new world refers to the America’s (and Canada). These vultures belong to the family Ciconifformes, in the family Cathartidae. There are seven species of new world vultures, only two occur in Florida. That is our lovely Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and the Black Vulture (Caragyps atratus). Vultures have bald heads and bare legs to keep them from acquiring bacteria and bugs from the carcasses they eat. Most vultures cannot make noise other than grunting and hissing and are near cousins to storks and ibises, not raptors. A vulture is full of, and nearly insusceptible to botulism; a near fatal condition for humans. They soar easily on thermals and do so often. On to the fun stuff.

Turkey Vultures

Turkey vultures are common across the U.S., but are protected by law. They are easily distinguished from black vultures by their larger size and reddish head. In flight they can be distinguished from a black vulture because they will bend their wings into a V shape, black vultures hold theirs perfectly straight. The turkey vulture cannot kill live animals. It has extremely weak talons and it’s bill is not designed for killing. They have one defense mechanism; vomit. When threatened or annoyed they puke, and puke, and puke, until whatever it is that is bothering them finally becomes so disgusted that it leaves. If you ever find an injured vulture, remember that.
Turkey vultures don’t build big nests high up. They nest near ground level in a mess of whatever they can find. Both the turkey vulture and the black vulture appear clumsy on the ground. In fact, it is difficult for them to get airborne, which is why you find so many dead on the road. Turkey Vultures apparently have better olfactory senses than the black vultures, and will scout out a carcass long before them.

Black Vultures

Black vultures are the clowns of the vulture world. Observing a group of them you will see harassment, attack, playing, and stealing. The Black vulture is only found in the Southeastern U.S. They sometimes will eat plant matter, and can take small prey. Mostly though, they are opportunistic. They often follow Turkey Vultures and then take over whatever they are eating. When in flight their wings remain straight and it looks as though they have light bands towards the tips of their wings. Like the Turkey vulture it’s not easy for them to take off from a standing position and they suffer high mortality on the roads. Black vultures also nest on the ground and only nest once yearly.

My questions about Vultures

If a vulture is sooooo toxic, are their eggs toxic as well?
Are there actually any documented cases of Black vultures killing calves?
If a vulture is raised in captivity does that decrease their botulism levels?
Are vultures resistant to internal parasites as well as the external ones?

Hope you enjoyed this little lesson on Florida’s Fabulous Vultures.

Extra References…


The Black Vulture

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