Bird Watcher's General Store

Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures

Dear Birds Folks,

I know the Cape has Turkey Vultures, but do we also have Black Vultures? If so, how can I tell which is which?

Ė Allen, Orleans, MA

Swell timing, Allen,

Itís early December and other columnists are recounting stories of holiday cheer and family traditions, but instead you want me to write about creepy old vultures. Really? Canít we save vultures for some more appropriate time of year, such as Halloween or Wall Street Week? Okay, Iíll do it, but next week I think I should write about a more cheery bird, like the beloved cardinal, just to make everyone else happy. Yup, thatís what Iíll do...maybe.

It was in the late 1970s when I took my first birding trip to Florida. Back then we couldnít afford an airline ticket, so we had to drive. I picked my wife up right after school (she was a teacher, not a student, so donít start any rumors) and we drove all through the night. Our first stop was at Floridaís I-95 Welcome Center. Two things impressed me about that stop. First: They gave us free orange juice. Free juice! (In a Massachusetts rest area you are lucky to get toilet paper.) I also remember seeing lots of vultures. The sky was filled with them. In the Ď70s vultures were a rare sight on Cape Cod, but in Florida they were everywhere. This is when I began to understand why so many Northerners travel to Florida. They simply want to see more vultures and get free juice...and who can blame them?

A lot of people donít like vultures and itís probably due to the birdsí habit of eating dead things. But when you think about it, we all eat dead things, especially if thereís barbecue sauce involved. The difference is our meat comes all wrapped up, with cute names such as brisket, sirloin or bottom round. (Heck, I donít even eat meat, yet Iím interested anytime I hear the words ďbottom round.Ē) Vultures arenít nearly as fussy as we are. They eat meat wherever they find it, especially if itís still attached to the original animal. If we see a vulture on the side of the road, chowing on a squashed rabbit, we think ďgross.Ē But if we see a guy in a restaurant eating prime rib, we think ďyumĒ (or at least some people think that).

As I mentioned, vultures are fairly new around here. The Commonwealthís first Turkey Vulture nest wasnít discovered until 1954. It was found in the Berkshire town of Tyringham (yes, itís a real town) and ever since our Turkey Vulture population has been expanding. But this hasnít been the case for their cousins, the Black Vultures. For the most part, they have remained in the South, making only rare cameos this far north. But then, in 1998, an adventurous Black Vulture couple decided to build a nest in the Blue Hills Reservation in the town of Milton (yes, itís a real town). Since then, they too have begun moving into Massachusetts, but at a much slower pace than the far more common Turkey Vultures. But that doesnít mean you shouldnít double check whenever you see one. If I were you, Allen, I would learn how to tell the two birds apart. Wait! Iím supposed to teach you that. I almost forgot.

The key to identifying our two vultures is noticing their heads. Turkey Vultures have naked, ugly bright red heads, much like Wild Turkeys have, hence their name. The heads of Black Vultures are also naked and probably just as ugly, but since their heads are gray, and not bright red, they donít look as scary. Black Vultures are all black, looking like giant crows, with gray heads. Turkey Vultures also appear to be black, but if you look closely youíll see their feathers are more brownish, looking like giant muddy crows.

Turkey Vultures are noted for soaring with their wings held in a steep dihedral (V-shape). They also tend to glide unsteadily, rocking from side to side, flying as if they just left a pub. The dihedral of a Black Vulture is less pronounced and more hawk-like. A few years ago, Cathy (the artist who draws the illustrations each week) tested a pair of binoculars that contained a built-in camera. One of her test shots was of a passing Turkey Vulture, or at least she thought it was. After I took a look at the photo, I was thrilled to see it was a Black Vulture. How could I tell? When seen from underneath, a Black Vultureís wings are all black, except near the tips where the ďhandsĒ are light colored. Conversely, the undersides of a Turkey Vultureís wings are half black and half white (black in the front and lighter in the back and on the ends). Noting these contrasting wing colors is the easiest way to separate the two vultures in flight. In other words, if the wings of your vulture look like black and white cookies, itís a Turkey Vulture. But if it has jazz hands, itís a Black Vulture. Most field guides donít describe the birds this way, but they should.

Identifying the differences between our two vultures is a good thing to know, Allen, as both birds are becoming more common. Although, at this point, 99% of the vultures we see on the Cape will be of the turkey persuasion. Nevertheless, it doesnít hurt to give each vulture you see a careful evaluation. And by the way, that pair of binoculars with the built-in camera wasnít very good so donít get any. That gives me an idea; next week Iíll write a column about choosing binoculars. Folks might find it helpful, especially in light of the upcoming gift-giving season. I know I promised to write about cardinals, but I think we all knew that wasnít going to happen.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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