Vulture Facts

Learn about nature's clean up crew.

Each year, the Wildlife Center admits and treats about 50-60 Black and Turkey Vultures. Common causes of admission for these two species include lead toxicosis, gunshot injuries, and collisions with vehicles. While some people may think of vultures as "gross", they are a vital part of our balanced ecosystem and play an important role as nature's "clean-up crew". Watch our episode of UNTAMED on vultures, and read below to learn more about these charismatic animals. 

Black vs. Turkey Vultures

A close view of former education Black Vulture Buttercup. He has a wrinkly head that is covered with tiny fine black hairs.

Black Vultures have black plumage, bare black heads, and white patches under their primary feathers. Black Vultures rely on sight to find their food. 

In flight, Black Vultures can be identified by their small patches of white feathers at the tips of their wings. Their tails are short and only extend the length of their legs. 

A Turkey Vulture, with brown body feathers and a red-pink bare head and a white beak.

Mature Turkey Vultures have dark plumage and featherless red heads; the undersides of the flight feathers are paler. An immature Turkey Vulture’s head is dark gray. Unlike most bird species, Turkey Vultures rely on their sense of smell to find prey.

In flight, Turkey Vulture's wings are largely silvery-white on the undersides. Their tails are also generally longer than Black Vultures. 

Feeding

Vultures are scavengers and feed primarily on carrion. They rid the landscape of deteriorating carcasses and help curb the spread of dangerous diseases and bacteria. Their stomachs have strong enzymes that kill off dangerous toxins and microorganisms.

Vultures lack the powerful feet that are characteristic of true raptors like eagles and hawks. They have long toes with blunted talons, which make it easier for vultures to walk on the ground. Turkey Vultures often place one or both feet on their food when eating; Black Vultures typically do not use their feet when feeding.

A Black Vulture's long toes and blunted talons.

Vultures have long, hooked bills designed for tearing pieces of food. Vultures lack feathers on their heads so they can more easily keep themselves clean when eating, since they often insert their heads completely inside the carcasses they feed on. 

A black vulture's hooked beak and nearly featherless head

The legs of vultures are usually coated white, due to the dried uric acid of their excrement. Vultures will mute – excrete waste – onto their legs, serving two different purposes:

  1. In warm weather, muting on their legs is part of their thermoregulation – it helps to cool down their body temperature.
  2. When vultures step into a carcass, touching possibly contaminated flesh, they risk coming into contact with bacteria. They disinfect themselves with the highly acidic uric acids by muting onto their legs. 

Behavior Facts

  • In the early mornings, vultures often will sit with their wings spread wide, increasing the surface area of their bodies so that the sun can more easily warm them. This is called the “horaltic pose”. This posture also helps control ectoparasites like feather lice and flat flies. 

    A Black Vulture spreads his wings wide in the sunshine.
  • Black Vultures are “family-oriented” birds – they feed their young for up to eight months after their young have fledged and often stay together in family groups.
  • Vultures lack a voice box; their vocalizations include rasping hisses and grunts.
  • According to All About Birds, "The word 'vulture' likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. [The Turkey Vulture's] scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either 'golden purifier' or 'purifying breeze'."
  • Vultures can live to be 25 years old.

Vulture Conservation

Vultures were once regarded as largely beneficial and were well-tolerated in human-populated areas. A negative attitude toward these scavengers was developed in the early 1900s when people became concerned that vultures might increase the spread of disease, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

You can help vultures by sharing your appreciation of these misunderstood scavengers with other people. Learn more about lead toxicosis and help us reduce the number of vultures (and eagles!) we see suffering from the effects of lead toxicity. 

You Can Help Support Our Work With Vultures

Your donation will help provide expert care for vultures and thousands of other patients that the Wildlife Center will help this year.