The vulture has long had a bad reputation as an omen of death and carriers of disease. Media depictions and stereotypes prevail and stop us from seeing the bigger picture with these animals. Vultures are diverse in terms of their locations, looks, and behaviours. This includes the three new world vultures of North America.
Old World and New World Vultures
When people think of vultures, they either think of the depictions in cartoons, like The Lion King, or the vultures circling above highways. There are actually a lot more species across the world, with very different sizes and plumage.
The old world vultures are those that live in Europe, Africa, and Asia. There are 15 of these in total, but populations are unstable. The griffon vulture is the species that has the traditional look of a vulture from media, with a brown body, bare head, and white ring around the neck. Others are much more colourful, such as the bearded vulture.
The new world vultures reside in North and South America. The King vulture is a striking breed with a colourful face that is found in southern Mexico. There are three resident vultures in the US: the black vulture, turkey vulture, and Californian condor.
The turkey vulture is the most widespread, with many moving into more northerly breeding territories. The black vulture shares much of the same year-round range and even follows behind the turkey vulture. Then there is the massive California condor, which is endangered. There is also another condor species found down in the Andes.
Turkey vultures share much of their range in the south-eastern USA and Mexico with the black vulture. They share similar habitats and behaviours, nesting on cliffs and picking up scraps of dead animals. In fact, the two species can coexist pretty well, with black vultures sometimes sharing the roosts of turkey vultures and following them to food sources. The black vulture has a much weaker sense of smell and is smart enough to take advantage of its neighbour’s sensory skills.
If you see a vulture in an urban area, it will likely be a black vulture as turkey vultures will generally avoid built-up areas.
If you are ever lucky enough to see the two birds side by side, you can tell them apart via their plumage. The black vulture has very dark feathers across its body and a dark featherless head. The turkey vulture can be a little lighter on the wings and has a distinctive red face that gives it its name.
The turkey vulture is the most common across much of the United States. If you see a vulture in the United States, there is a good chance it will be a turkey vulture. You can see them year-round in the more southern states, south-east, and then up across most of the east coast.
Other states further north may gain temporary populations during the breeding season. However, there are some areas of northern and central states that they don’t inhabit.
You can spot these birds via their distinctive way of flying. They will fly in circles as it rides the thermals, much like other birds of prey, including eagles and buzzards.
Vultures, however, seem a lot more unsteady. They also don’t need to fly quite as high as an eagle because they rely on their sense of smell to locate food more than their eyesight. These birds will sniff out carrion and scavenge food rather than hunt for it. This strategy makes sense if there is enough food around as it saves the energy that would otherwise go into a kill.
Both turkey vultures and black vultures provide a valuable waste management service. While this feeding behaviour gives vultures a bad reputation, this is an important service for the local environment. They are cleaning up carcasses of dead animals. This can be either wildlife that has succumbed naturally, dead livestock, or animals killed on the road. There needs to be a greater appreciation for these creatures’ work as pest control in the wild. Their clean up operations can minimize the risk of vermin and stop disease from spreading.
This is why you will often see turkey vultures hanging around or flying by roads. Highways are prime sites for animal fatalities, and a vulture can swoop in and deal with the mess. They may also take animals from farms.
While the turkey vulture and the black vulture are relatively widespread, it is a different story for the California condor.
The Californian condor is now red-listed and limited to a few small areas. They should breed in more significant numbers on the cliffs of California, Nevada, and Arizona. But, the population declined to just 22 birds in the 1980s. This number is now past 200 with additional captive breeding programs, but some challenges remain. A problem for these breeding programs is that the females may not nest every year, and if they do, the California condor only produces one egg. If that egg happens to be a female chick, it doesn’t become mature for 8 years.
You can see the California Condor in a few places in California. On the central coast of California, Big Sur is home to the condor, and they can also be seen at Pinnacles National Park, one of America’s volcanic parks. There is also a sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest.
Like its smaller cousins, this giant bird – the largest in the country – will scavenge anything it can come across. Their vast wingspans mean that it doesn’t take them long to travel between locations in search of food. To tackle another misconception about the vulture, these birds are very clean and bathe regularly to rid themselves of waste from their scavenging trips.
The Californian condor isn’t the only species in trouble right now. A study in 2016 found that nine of the twenty-two species in the world were critically endangered, while only six were in the category of least concern. People see vultures as pests, and cases of poisoning and shooting aren’t uncommon. There is also the risk of birds flying into wind turbines, which has led to calls for different designs.
Without better education and support about the importance of these creatures and their true behaviours, there is the risk that we could lose many species. We shouldn’t just celebrate the diversity of these species in the US, but the impact they have on our natural world.
For more information on vultures and other birds of North America, I recommend the following field guides.