The vulture has a bad reputation as an omen of death and disease carriers. Media depictions and stereotypes stop us from seeing the beauty of these birds. Vultures are diverse in terms of their locations, looks, and behaviors. This includes the three new world vultures found in
North America is home to three distinct types of vultures: the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the California Condor. While Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures are fairly common scavengers with unique characteristics, the California Condor is critically endangered, making it one of the rarest bird species on the continent.
If you want to know more about vultures in North America, please read on.
Old World and New World Vultures
Vultures can be broadly categorized into two groups: Old World vultures and New World vultures. While they share a common name and some scavenging behaviors, these vultures come from distinct lineages and inhabit different regions of the globe.
Old World Vultures live in Europe, Africa, and Asia. There are 15 species, but populations are unstable. The Griffon Vulture is the species that has the traditional look of a vulture from movies and television, with a brown body, bare head, and white ring around the neck. Others are much more colorful, such as the Bearded Vulture.
There are 16 species of New World Vultures that reside in North and South America, King Vultures are a striking breed with a colorful face found in southern Mexico. The United States has three resident vultures: the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the Californian Condor.
The Turkey Vulture is the most widespread, with many moving into northern breeding territories. The Black Vulture shares much of the same year-round range and even follows behind the Turkey Vulture. The third species is the massive California Condor, which is endangered.
The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most common vulture species across much of the United States. These birds can be seen year-round in southern states, the southeast, and along most of the East Coast.
In some states further north, temporary populations may appear during the breeding season. Turkey Vultures are typically not found in the northern and central states of the United States, including areas such as the upper Midwest and the Central Plains.
One way to identify Turkey Vultures is by their unique flight pattern. They soar in circles as they ride thermal currents, much like other birds of prey, including eagles and buzzards. However, vultures appear less steady in flight.
They often don’t need to fly as high as eagles because they rely on their sense of smell more than their eyesight to locate food. Turkey Vultures have a remarkable ability to smell carrion and scavenge for food rather than actively hunting. This strategy conserves energy, particularly when there’s an abundance of food available.
Turkey Vultures provides a valuable waste management service. While their scavenging behavior might give vultures a negative reputation, it’s an essential service for the local environment. Vultures play a crucial role in cleaning up the carcasses of dead animals, whether it’s wildlife that has died naturally, livestock, or animals killed on the road. Their cleanup operations help minimize the risk of vermin infestations and prevent the spread of diseases.
You can often find Turkey Vultures flying over roads because highways are prime locations for animal fatalities.
Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) is a common species found in the southeastern USA and Mexico, sharing similar habitats and behaviors with Turkey Vultures. They often nest on cliffs and scavenge for dead animals.
Black Vultures sometimes share roosting sites with Turkey Vultures and even follow them to locate food sources. This behavior highlights the Black Vulture’s reliance on the Turkey Vulture’s keen sense of smell to find carrion.
In urban areas, you are more likely to encounter Black Vultures than Turkey Vultures, as the latter tends to avoid built-up environments.
Distinguishing between the two is relatively straightforward based on their plumage. The Black Vulture has predominantly dark feathers covering its body, coupled with a dark featherless head. In contrast, the Turkey Vulture’s wings may appear slightly lighter, and it features a distinctive red face, which is a notable characteristic that lends it its name.
Black Vultures play crucial roles in their ecosystems by helping to clean up carrion and prevent the spread of diseases. Their scavenging behaviors contribute to the efficient recycling of nutrients in the environment.
The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) a majestic giant among North American birds, is currently listed as critically endangered, and restricted to a few isolated regions. Historically, the California Condor bred along the cliffs of California, Nevada, and Arizona in more significant numbers. However, their population dwindled to a mere 22 individuals in the 1980s.
Thanks to intensive captive breeding programs, the California Condor population has increased to over 200 birds, yet several challenges persist. One key challenge lies in the reproduction rate of females. They do not nest annually, and when they do, they typically lay just one egg. Moreover, female chicks take a remarkable eight years to mature.
In California, you can observe the California Condor in a few select locations. Along the central coast, the scenic Big Sur region serves as a habitat for these impressive birds. Another notable site is Pinnacles National Park, a volcanic wonder in the United States. Furthermore, there is a sanctuary established for their protection within the Los Padres National Forest.
Despite their enormous size, California Condors share the scavenging habits of their smaller counterparts. These massive birds, boasting expansive wingspans, can traverse great distances in search of carrion. They are very clean birds and regularly engage in bathing rituals to cleanse themselves of waste acquired during their scavenging expeditions.
The California Condor represents just one of many vulture species facing critical challenges. A 2016 study revealed that nine out of the world’s twenty-two vulture species are critically endangered, while only six fall into the “least concern” category.
Unfortunately, vultures are often perceived as pests, leading to cases of poisoning and shooting. Additionally, the risk of bird collisions with wind turbines has emerged as a significant concern, prompting calls for alternative turbine designs.
References And Further Reading
Vultures: Their Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation by Keith L. Bildstein
This comprehensive book provides an in-depth look at vultures worldwide, including those in North America. It covers their evolution, ecological roles, conservation status, and more.
Vultures of the World by Stephen Debus
This book offers detailed information about vultures from around the world, including species found in North America. It covers their biology, behavior, and conservation.
California Condors in the 21st Century by Noel Snyder, Helen Snyder, and Amy Scholes
Focusing on the critically endangered California Condor, this book discusses the conservation efforts and challenges faced by this species.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.