Scavengers of the Sky

Across the world there are 23 different vulture species, but only 2 reside within North America. The 2 species that reside in North America are the black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Turkey vultures can be found throughout most of the United States and all of Mexico with some distribution into southern Canada. Black vultures are found within Mexico and the southern United States with expansion into New York and the southern Midwestern states.

If you are in an area with both black and turkey vultures, how do you tell them apart? At close range both vultures are easy to tell apart. The major tell-tale sign is head coloration. Turkey vultures have a red head, while black vultures have a black head. However, most of the time vultures are soaring high in the sky and head coloration is difficult to distinguish. The next best way to differentiate vultures from one another is body size and underwing coloration. Turkey vultures have a larger wing span and longer tail than the black vulture. Generally, black vultures have a stubbier look when they are soaring. Also, since black vultures have a shorter wingspan, they tend to flap more while soaring than turkey vultures. While vultures are soaring, the underwing coloration is very distinct. The major difference is that black vultures have white on the very end on the wing tips, they almost have the appearance of wearing gloves. Turkey vultures on the other hand have black coloration on the leading edge of the wing and gray on the trailing edge of the wing.

Due to vulture’s dark coloration and food source, they have developed a negative image as being symbols of death and bad luck. However, vultures play a very important role in the ecosystem. Vultures consume carrion, suppress disease, recycle nutrients thorough the ecosystem, and act as a general clean-up crew for the world. By consuming carrion, that would otherwise slowly rot, vultures naturally clear the landscape and remove diseases that may be transmitted by the carrion. A vulture’s digestive is perfectly suited for destroying bacteria and other diseases potentially fatal to humans and wildlife. The monetary benefits that vultures provide to society is no doubt in the millions.

While vultures provide many benefits, humans and vultures still have a lot of conflicts. Some of the major conflicts between humans and vultures is property damage, aircraft safety, and livestock depredation. The major concern with vultures is during roosting and daytime sites. During these times vultures will defecate, which emits a foul ammonia smell and is not aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, large quantities of vultures can be unsettling to some people. When vultures roost or use day sites near airfields, they pose a huge safety concern. Vultures are the third leading cause of bird airstrikes among aircraft. Lastly, vultures can cause problems with livestock depredation. In cases of livestock depredation, black vultures are normally the culprits rather than turkey vultures. Normally, black vultures are found around birthing sites feeding on the afterbirth, but they can turn on newly born livestock.

There are ways of managing vultures if they are causing problems. However, first and foremost, it is completely illegal to shoot both black and turkey vultures without the proper federal permits. Both vultures are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is completely legal to harass vultures, within reason, to deter them from returning to an area. Some of the different method of harassment are lasers, pyrotechnics, helium balloons, and even motion activated sprinklers.

For more information on vultures or how to deter vultures read the article, Vultures, or contact your regional United States Fish and Wildlife Service agent.

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