When looking up in the sky, we can often see vultures hovering and gliding in large circular patterns. With as much deer, fox, raccoon, groundhog, and opossum roadkill as is in this area, it’s not surprising to be able to look up at any point in time and see vultures! Many look up and see these large black birds and automatically assume, oh look, a Vulture, when in reality, there are many different vulture species, not just one general vulture! These local (Southeastern Pennsylvania) vulture species can include the Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture! So short answer for you – NO! Not all vultures are JUST vultures.
To tell the difference between these two species, you can look at the head and the underwing. When looking up at these high-soaring birds, you can see a difference in the wings. When looking up at them, you may notice that the Turkey Vulture has some silver or grey feathers. The Black Vulture will have those grey or white feathers, but only at the very tips of the wings instead of all along the bottom side. The head of the Turkey Vulture is bald and a reddish-pink color, while the head of the Black Vulture is, well, Black! The Black Vultures may also have some feathers on the tops of their heads, but leave their face featherless.
Why do these birds have those bald faces to begin with? Are they sick? Nope! In fact, it’s the opposite! The bald, featherless faces allow these carrion (or dead matter) eating birds to stay healthy and clean as they eat disease or bacteria ridden carcasses. As they rip flesh with their beaks, they prevent the rest of their body and feathers from getting the gunk on them. The bald head and faces of some vultures also help them handle thermoregulation. As they fly high into the chilly air, then descend, often onto black roadways that absorb heat as they eat roadkill, they need to be able to handle these sudden temperature changes. Head is often lost from the head, and their featherless heads allow them to lose heat quickly when it’s hot. When it’s cold, you may see them hunched up, or with their head tucked back to prevent that heat loss.
While their task of eating dead things may seem pretty gross, this is actually a vital and marvelous job! Not only do they help “prettify” our world by removing dead things, they also help to sterilize and mitigate some disease spread. Their stomach acid and digestive system is so powerful that they scrub the bodies they eat of diseases like rabies, botulinum, and even anthrax! Without carrion-eaters like the Black and Turkey Vulture, the number of carcasses would pile up and the number of deadly diseases could spread quickly. Imagine having to wade through dead bodies as we tried to get around…. That is gross, but fortunately for us, we have the Black and Turkey Vultures cleaning up the ecosystem and cycling that dead creature’s nutrients back into the life cycle and food chain.
Have I convinced you to show some love to your local Black or Turkey Vulture populations yet? There may be even more, or other vulture species where you live too! You can help to protect these species by slowing down when you see roadkill. Be aware of Black or Turkey vultures that may be on the roadsides, trying to snag that meal in the middle. It would be so sad to hit a vulture as it’s trying to clean the road! Keep them safe by allowing them to do their job and slowly drive around them. If you notice them nesting in trees nearby, let them do so! They are probably cleaning themselves (they take very good care of their feathers, especially after a meal) and warming up before heading back out. If you see one, thank them for the messy job they do for the environment!