Saturday, November 21, 2009


For vulture lovers and wanna-bes: Vulture ID made easy.

Some of you have no problem with identifying vultures. The only one you see is the Turkey Vulture.
Those of us who live in the eastern US, roughly south of the 40th parallel, must separate Black Vultures from the more common Turkey Vultures. Here's how:

The photo below shows a Black Vulture on the left, and a Turkey Vulture on the right. From a distance, and disguised by the tree branches, there doesn't appear to be much difference. If you get up close and personal, though, you begin to seen the variations.

First, the head. The Turkey Vulture seems to be embarrassed. Look at that red face!

The Black Vulture's face is, well --- black.
The face alone can fool you, however, since immature Turkey Vultures will also have a black head, so look at the wings.

Turkey Vultures have a silvery gray color to the trailing edge of their wings, all the way from the body to the wingtips, when view from below. Since this is the most common way we see them, this is a helpful field mark.
Black Vultures, on the other hand, have white wingtips only.Next, look at the flight pattern. Black Vultures flap a lot more than Turkey Vultures do.
When a Black Vulture soars, it is only for a short distance, and it holds its wings flat.Turkey Vultures have to expend a lot of energy to get airborne, especially on cloudy days when there isn't enough sun to warm the rising thermals, but once aloft, they can soar forever, teetering back and forth in their classic dihedral. (A dihedral, for the non-birders who read this blog, is a wide, shallow "V" shape.)
Sometimes, it seems that none of your field marks help. You are too far away to see head color, and the lighting is too bad to be able to distinguish the underwing patterns. All you have is a silhouette. What's a birder to do?

There is one clue which is indisputable, one way to tell your two vultures apart that doesn't rely on good lighting, flight patterns, or a spotting scope. Check the bird's tail. Black Vultures have very short tails, just the length of their legs.

In comparison, a Turkey Vulture's tail is long and wedge-shaped.
Whether the bird is flying, soaring, or perched, tail length will always give him away.

Now that you are all vulture experts, try to ID the following two photos, which I deliberately chose for their poor quality and lack of obvious field marks. Do we have one species below, or two? And which is which?

mystery bird 1

mystery bird 2


Susan said...

Great ID reminders. Thank you! I now realize I can add Black Vulture to my life list...seen in North Carolina last month...thought the white wings tips were just an anomaly as I'd seen hundreds of Turkey Vultures all along the eastern seaboard.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Well my dear Kathi, you came back to blogging on a perfect note!! Love this one!
I remember Jeff Gordon bringing up the tail field mark in New River. I hadn't known before that. Remember I got my lifer Black Vulture in Cape May??
You'vekicked me in the butt to get back to blogging. I've been under the radar lately too. Going up to Hasty today. Surely I'll find something blog-worthy there.

BTW- I see Potholes and Prairies registration is open. I'll call you Sunday as I have questions about it.

Is this the longest, rambliest comment ever?

1- Turkey Vulture
2- Black Vulture

Geoff Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
holly said...

Well, now I know. I've seen a few birds that I thought 'turkey vulture' but when got close up, saw no red. 'Well, it *looked* like a vulture! Wondered what they were. Thanks!

Susan Gets Native said...

Look ALIVE!!!!

NCmountainwoman said...

Great post and worth waiting for! We're fortunate to have large numbers of both types of vultures and I love them all.

Wren said...

Great post, Katdoc.

I thought of Lynne immediately, and fortunately I agree with her ID, because I'd hate to argue vultures with her.

BTW, I've heard that black vultures have been seen in Michigan, but mostly it's the TVs. I did see both in Virginia, of course, but the TVs were far more common there as well.

KatDoc said...


Yes, I thought of Lynne as I wrote this, and also Nina, who took me to see the vulture-palooza at Cowan Lake.

Of course, your ID is correct. Number 1 is a TV, number 2 a BV.

There is a theory that Black Vultures are moving further north, in part due to global warming, which is why my range was "roughly south of the 40th parallel." I know when I lived further north in Ohio, I didn't see them, but I also wasn't looking at the time.

It wasn't until I moved to SW Ohio that I even saw BV, which I must say I like better than the regular TV.