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Spooky birds

Black vultures have shorter tails than eagles, which is the way to tell the difference of a far-off bird. Black vultures will occasionally pursue small live prey in addition to eating carrion.


November 3, 2011

There is likely not a bird more maligned than a vulture. In the movies, especially westerns, they are typically portrayed circling over hapless people stranded in the desert. To look at them invokes comments such as, “What an ugly bird!” Indeed, they are not likely to win any beauty contests in the bird world. In nature however, adaptations usually have a purpose, even the vulture’s seemingly unsightly head.

There are two species of vultures in the region, the turkey vulture and the less common black vulture. Both species appear in the spring of the year and spend the summer, and they start their fall migration during late October into November. Travel into parts of New Jersey and turkey vultures can be seen throughout the winter months. Black vultures are more southerly, and we are at the northern end of their range.

Turkey vultures fly with wings in a “V” or dihedral, and they fly unsteadily, rocking in even light turbulence. Black vultures fly with straight wings and are steady in flight, and are sometimes mistaken for eagles in flight. Some birders call them by their slang name, “Alabama eagles,” as they are more prolific in the southern United States.

Both species do yeoman’s duty as clean-up specialists, and this makes them a beneficial bird as they feed on carrion. It is this foraging habit that is the likely reason for their less than beautiful face and head; the absence of feathers on the head makes it easier to keep their head clean after they feed. This is a useful adaptation even if it does make them look “spooky.”