If it weren't for the work of the industrious vultures, the roads and landscape would be filled with rotting carrion. Black Vultures get first choice at the table.
When the vultures appear overhead, the captain of the St Lucie River cruise boat cautions everyone onboard to “Look alive!” lest they be mistaken for an easy vulture meal. No one wants to be mistaken for carrion, the main source of the vulture diet.
In fact, we would probably be up to our eye-balls in stinking rotting road-kill if it weren’t for the excellent work done by those ubiquitous efficient scavengers, often maligned because of their less than gorgeous good looks and gorging, gluttonous feeding habits. They can clean up a car-killed wild boar or white-tailed deer in a matter of hours, or a vehicle-flattened skunk, possum, or groundhog in minutes. There are actually places where their migratory return is hailed much like the swallows of Capistrano, but maybe without as good PR. Think Hinckley, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. (I found six such festivals: http://vulturesociety.homestead.com/Events.html)
Beginning birders struggle with separating the two species of vultures commonly found in eastern North America, particularly when seen flying overhead at a distance. But when seen in close proximity to each other, and to us, the differences are obvious.
The red head of the Turkey Vulture (above left) and the black head of Black Vulture are readily apparent, while the different flight shapes of the two, as well as the light colored feathering in the under-wings can readily be distinguished.
Less obvious, and therefore needing more observation to learn, is the difference in the bird’s flight patterns: the Turkey Vulture has more of a “V” shaped flying profile, which it seems to teeter-totter back and forth as it soars; while the Black Vulture flies with a more flat, stocky profile, and intersperses its soaring with quick bursts of wing-beats.
Both feed in communal togetherness, but the smaller Black Vulture is dominant over the larger Turkey Vulture, which will patiently wait at a respectful distance until all the Black Vultures have had their fill before moving in to tackle the remaining carcass. Both have bare, un-feathered heads so that they won’t mess up any fancy hairdo they might have, while dipping into some poor critter’s bloody bowels. (Some image, isn’t it?!)
Out in the southwestern United States, the Zone-tailed Hawk, (below), a normal typical raptor that feeds on small birds, particularly quail, and small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, looks very much like a Turkey Vulture.
Except that it has a black feathered head, a gray beak and small white stripes in its tail. But it has developed a unique hunting style: flying just like the teeter-tottering Turkey Vulture, and actually often soaring in the company of the vultures. The potential prey on the ground know they have nothing to fear from the carrion eating vultures, but mistake the identity of the vulture mimicking Zone-tailed Hawk with them, until it is too late. Almost like a computer hacker or a wealthy banker’s widow in Nigeria who needs our help in spiriting millions out of the country (“just send $2,500 to show your good faith”).
Now go forth with confidence that you won’t mistake the identity of the vultures, and if you get to southern Arizona, New Mexico or west Texas look for the “Turkey Vulture” with the gray beak and the striped tail. And be sure to “Look alive!” (7/26/2012)
All vultures, such as these Turkey Vultures, are usually seen dining in groups.
(Click photos for larger versions)