Birdist Rule #60: Figure Out What Kind of Vulture Is Circling You

(And creep your friends out while you're at it.)

Everything I learned about vultures as a kid, I learned from watching Saturday morning cartoons. They were evil and weird looking, and their appearance meant that death was nigh for some unfortunate soul.

For example, the evil vultures in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were last seen flying down to feast on the dead Evil Queen (Disney is kinda messed up sometimes). Two of the henchmen in Robin Hood were vultures. There was a Looney Tunes character I don’t remember called Beaky Buzzard who tried to be mean but was actually just dumb (he was in Space Jam!).

There were also those vultures from the old version of the Jungle Book that appeared to be evil at first, but actually were a bunch of goofballs that used their Liverpudlian accents to sing songs about friendship. I don’t really know how to explain those characters.

The point is, the popular narrative on vultures is that they’re villains. The reality is that they’re awesome. You should learn more about them, including how to identify the three species of vultures we Americans might see soaring overhead. They’re easy to separate, and you’ll be able to impress your friends, who might think you’re some kind of nature goth.

But before we get to identification, let’s cover some basics. Vultures are large birds of prey that search the landscape for carrion (not carry-out HAH), roadkill, and other nasty dead things. Some people call them “buzzards” in this country, and even though that’s not technically correct, no one is going to call the police or anything. They’re separated into two groups: the 16 species of Old World vultures found in Asia, Africa, and Europe, and the seven species of New World vultures found in North and South America.

Vultures aren’t evil, but they’re still pretty weird. This famous comic from Rosemary Mosco of sums everything up pretty nicely. Yes, a defining characteristic of vultures is their featherless or near-featherless heads, which help the birds keep cool but also make it cleaner and easier for them to jam their heads into animal carcasses. Yes, New World vultures urinate and defecate onto their legs to keep themselves cool. (It’s better for the environment than your A/C.) Finally, yes, some vultures will use vomit as a defense mechanism, but only because no one will teach them Judo.

Alright, now that the gross stuff is out of the way, we can talk identification. There are three species you may see in the United States: the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the California Condor.

Let’s leave aside the condor for a moment because it’s a special case and focus on the other two. Turkey Vultures are easily the most widespread vulture in this hemisphere, ranging from the southern tip of South America, up through Central America, and in summer, throughout the Lower 48 and into southern Canada. Though nearly as ubiquitous in South America, Black Vultures have not (yet) conquered the United States, common only in the southeast from Texas to about New York City.

Both of these birds are black, but it’s the color of their heads that’s eponymous. The Black Vulture has a black head, and the Turkey Vulture has a bright-red head, like the face of a Wild Turkey. Head color is an easy ID reference point for adults—if you can get close enough. But you’re much more likely to see vultures soaring, so let’s figure out how to identify them that way.

Thankfully, it’s easy. Each species has a different silvery feather pattern on the underside of the wings, which can be seen when the birds are flying overhead. Turkey Vultures are black on the leading edge of their underwings, with the trailing edge of the wings and the outer flight feathers a contrasting gray. Put more simply, a Turkey Vulture circling above will look like its wings are black in the front and silver in the back.

Black Vultures, on the other hand, are all black underneath except for silver wingtips, which look to me like white gloves at the ends of their wings. Basically, Black Vultures fly around with permanent jazz hands.

Identification gets tougher when you can’t see the underwings, but there are other clues. Turkey Vultures have long and narrow wings that are sort of elegant. Black Vultures fly around on big, fat, paddle-like wings, paired with a shorter tail. Also, unless they’re taking off from a perch, Turkey Vultures very rarely flap their wings. Instead, they’re masters of soaring, teetering back and forth on outstretched wings, taking advantage of thermals and updrafts to gain altitude. When they do flap, the wingbeats are slooooooow. Black Vultures flap somewhat more frequently, and perform a rapid flap-flap-flap that can be identifiable from a distance.

So now you know how to separate our two most common vultures. But they aren’t the only ones out there.

You’re not going to confuse the California Condor with Blacks or Turkeys, or any other birds. You might confuse it with an airplane, though. California Condors are enormous: They have a 10-foot wingspan and are one of the heaviest flying birds in North America. They’re incredible, and they’re nearly extinct. Poaching, lead poisoning, and loss of habitat led condors to be extinct in the wild in 1987. But thanks to decades of painstaking work, they’re on their way back, and now can be found in certain parts of California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico.

You should also know that not every ominous-looking bird is a vulture. There are lots of big, soaring birds out there that might confuse you. American White Pelicans are huge and don’t flap much, but unlike vultures they’re pretty pasty. Bald Eagles, Osprey, and immature Golden Eagles all have white in places on their wings where vultures don’t have silver. Adult Golden Eagles can look very similar, but they’re even bigger than vultures, and have feathered heads and hold their wings very horizontal.

The toughest bird to distinguish from a vulture is the Zone-tailed Hawk—found only in this country in western Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. This species looks and flies almost identical to Turkey Vultures, and often joins flocks, or “kettles,” of soaring vultures. Since Turkey Vultures only eat dead creatures, scientists suggest that Zone-tailed Hawks might use mimicry to trick live prey into not hiding or running away. 

I hope you’ve learned that vultures are more than just nature’s garbage dumps. They’re also incredible fliers and beautiful birds, and they keep us from getting rabies and hog cholera and other plagues. Now let’s make a Saturday morning cartoon about that.