The Vultures of Eastern North America

Vultures play a critical role in our ecosystem.  They are the garbage men of nature and fill an important niche in the decomposition process by helping break apart and eating large chunks of dead animals.  It is said that you can tell an ecosystem is relatively healthy if there is a thriving vulture population because that means a large population of other animals who are dying at a steady rate and giving a reliable food source to the birds.  However, most people including many nature enthusiasts don’t pay very much attention to these birds.

In most of North America, we have two species of vulture.  There is also the California Condor, but that bird is rare and only lives in a limited area of the Southwestern United States.  For the most part, anyone who sees a vulture in North America is either looking at the Turkey Vulture or the Black Vulture.  Both birds are very common in North American and have ranges that extend over most of South America. South American has several additional species of vulture that I’m not personally familiar with and I don’t intend to cover.

Their names come from one of the easiest ways to tell them apart:

The Black Vulture (left) can easily be distinguished by its black head while the Turkey Vulture (right) has a more red color.  While not especially Turkey-like in shape, the coloration of the Turkey Vulture does resemble that of a Turkey, hence the name.  Another feature you can look for in the head is how fleshy the appearance of the Black Vulture is while the Turkey Vulture is more skeletal in appearance.  If viewed from the right angle, you can actually see through one nostril and out the other of the Turkey Vulture.

While this is the clearest and most obvious way to tell them apart, most people don’t get a chance to see the birds up close.  Instead, they see them from underneath as the vultures soar past.  From this angle, there are still distinct differences but they are more subtle.  

Look towards the Flight Feathers (the long feathers on the trailing side of the wings).  In all birds, these are separated between the Primaries and the Secondaries or feathers that come from the equivalent of the forearm and the upper arm respectively.  In the Turkey Vulture, all of these feathers have a pale grey color in comparison to the darker Contour Feathers (the feathers of the body).  There is no major difference between the Primaries and Secondaries.  

This isn’t true of the Black Vulture.  Here, a distinct difference can be seen with the Secondaries being roughly the same dark color as the Contour Feathers while the Primaries are a light gray that is almost white.

What can be confusing is that the lighting is seldom perfect on birds directly overhead.  Sometimes, you might get lighting that better illuminates the underside of the bird.  This photo is of a Black Vulture as can clearly be seen by its black head and light-colored Primaries.  However, because of the lighting, the Secondaries stand out as much paler than the Contour Feathers making it possible to mistake them for a Turkey Vulture.  Similarly, lighting from directly above the bird can filter through the spread-out Primaries more readily than the denser Secondaries making a Turkey Vulture possibly confused with a Black Vulture.  Care should be taken to consider the lighting of the situation before declaring which bird you see.

Sometimes, these birds might only be seen from a distance as a silhouette soaring through the air.  Even here, it is possible to tell them apart.  Black Vultures (top) tend to hold their wings flat as their soar with the Primaries bending slightly upward.  Meanwhile, the Turkey Vultures (bottom) will hold their wings in a “V” shape.  This is only obvious to see when observed from the head or tail and typically does not make for a very photogenic shot because of the distance involved, hence me not having a good photo of the position and relying on a crude hand drawing.

I do love these birds despite their less than glamorous role in the ecosystem.  They can be very friendly under the right circumstances and are a joy to have around.  It is just a shame that most people only ever have any interaction with them as they clean up roadkill.  I hope that more people take the time to appreciate these wonderful birds and all of the things they do for us.

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