Who Knew About Vultures?

Damn! Thump-thump. That squirrel ran right out in front of me. Unfortunately, he was no match for my 3 tons of truck. I hate that, but, it happens.

On my return within 30-minutes that poor little squirrel corpse was overridden with vultures. I honked and they hopped to the side, but were otherwise unbothered. By the next day, only bones and a bit of hide remained.

As a native Texan I want to say that the buzzards cleaned up that road kill real good. Fact is, those were not buzzards. Buzzards are actually buteos, a type of hawk. We are familiar with the Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). Early settlers in America, used to seeing large winged hawks soaring overhead back in Europe, mistook vultures for buzzards, thus the misnomer.

There are two common types of vultures in Texas, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus). Contrary to the myth vultures do not spread disease. 

Turkey vultures breed throughout Texas. Although one may find usually two eggs on the ground in leaf litter and small twigs, they do not build a nest. Within 40 days of incubation downy white fledgelings with black heads emerge. The young are cared for by both adults, feeding them through regurgitation. At around 75 days, the immature, differentiated by a dark head and bill, take flight. The head gradually turns grey, then the bright red of adults. As they soar one can distinguish them by their two-toned wing pattern with a lighter trailing edge.

Photo by Sally King

Although turkey vultures find food by sighting a carcass, they seem to have a heightened sense of smell as well. Overall, their population is healthy, and perhaps growing. The major dangers are lead poisoning from ingesting buck shot, mishaps with vehicles, trapping, and being shot.

Resources: Texas Breeding Bird Atlas; All About Birds; Audubon

Nor do black vultures build a nest. They prefer thickets as opposed to hollow trees or brush piles. The mating pair is monogamous and may return to the same nesting site repeatedly. Black vultures are distinguishable by a smaller, more compact body and a greyish black head. As they soar above one can look for their distinctive white wingtips.

Photo by Murray Foubister

Without a heightened sense of smell finding food is more challenging. Although they ride high thermals in search of carrion, they often rely on the turkey vulture to locate food. Once a carcass is located they become very aggressive, often taking over the food from the turkey vulture. Most notable as dumpster divers, one may find them around garbage dumps and park trash bins.

Resources: Texas Breeding Bird Atlas; All About Birds; Audubon


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