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?