Black vultures

Black vultures feast on the carcass of a large animal. By eating dead animals, they help to stop the spread of disease. (Jerry Friedman)

The big trash truck’s engine rumbled as a single worker methodically emptied the apartment building’s bins. He attached the receptacles to the lift device, pulled a lever and watched as the bin rose and then tipped its contents into the truck’s gaping rear.

I was joined in watching the proceedings by a pair of vultures, perched expectantly on the adjacent carport. They waited in vain. The young man at the controls expertly emptied every bin without spilling a single item.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are regulars in this area. I usually see them soaring high overhead, or on the side of the highway feeding on roadkill. On this day, I was in the parking lot behind our apartment and had a close-up view of the raptors.

Their cousin, the turkey vulture, has an unfeathered head that shows its red flesh. Black vultures have the same featherless look, but their skin is gray to black. (The head is ashy gray in young birds and turns sooty black over the years.)

On the wing, the two species display other differences. Turkey vultures show gray-white underwings, while black vultures have all-black wings except for silvery-white tips on the five longest wing feathers. The tail of the black is noticeably shorter and broader than that of the turkey. Its head, too, is smaller.

Although slightly smaller overall than turkey vultures, black vultures are still very large birds. They stand 2 feet high and have wingspans that reach 4.5 feet. The birds weigh more than 4 pounds. The sexes look alike.

Turkey vultures outnumber black vultures in the United States. But the opposite is true when considering all of the Western Hemisphere. Black vultures breed from Pennsylvania southwest through Texas, Mexico and down through Central and South America. Black vultures are permanent residents on their established territories.

Turkey vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell. They can identify carrion from hundreds of feet overhead. Black vultures lack that keen nose. Instead, they soar above turkey vultures. Once the bigger bird finds carrion, black vultures follow behind. One-on-one, turkey vultures use their superior size to dominate. But black vultures feed in groups, and they will often displace the relatively solitary turkey vulture.

Vultures, sometimes called buzzards, are best known as carrion feeders. In open fields or alongside roads, they are often seen feeding on the carcasses of deer, feral pigs, skunks and the like. On farms, they will feast on downed pigs, cattle and sheep. On rare occasions, they take live animals, almost always newborns. And despite their lack of success when I was watching, black vultures do a good job of consuming human trash.

Turkey vultures do more than serve as scouts. With bigger, stronger beaks, turkey vultures can tear open the tough hides of carrion, which black vultures often can’t. Once opened, the dead animal is devoured quickly and aggressively. Viscera and soft muscle are consumed in big bites. How appealing.

Given its feeding habits and frankly unattractive looks, black vultures can be tough to love. That can be especially true if their roost is on your property, along with the mess and smell that come with it. Nevertheless, there is much to commend the black vulture.

They play a key role in the cycle of life. Quickly removing dead animals stops the spread of disease. The vulture’s stomach acid is so powerful it will destroy most pathogens. Black vultures can eat sick animals without becoming ill themselves. They are ecological cleaners of the highest order.

Strictly monogamous, black vultures mate for life. Although their territory can cover miles, they use the exact same nesting spot year after year. Black vultures lay their eggs directly on a bare surface in a dark cavity such as in a dead tree, in an abandoned building or atop a firetower.

The two or three eggs in the single annual clutch are incubated for 38–39 days, with both parents sharing duties. Chicks are helpless when born. Parents tend them constantly for up to 90 days. Even after the young birds fledge, they rely on their parents for many weeks. Ornithologists have found parents still feeding young birds eight months post-fledge.

Favorite roosting areas can be host to dozens of vultures and other raptors. Within those roosts, families stick together. If one set of birds has identified a productive feeding area, they will lead relatives to the site the next day. At feeding sites, family members will drive away non-kindred birds.

It takes eight years before birds start breeding. In the meantime, these young birds stick close to parents and other family members. Extended families support one another on roosts, at feeding sites and in protecting territory from intruders.

I thought back to the worker operating the trash truck. Over the course of the pandemic, society has begun to recognize the value of many “invisible” jobs. Consequently, today we are more likely to recognize that trash truck operator as an essential part of society. Maybe it’s time to give black vultures a second look as well. After all, in the avian world, they are essential workers, too.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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