The most abundant vulture in the Western Hemisphere, the black vulture is a common bird of prey to see in southeastern North America and throughout much of South America. Often seen feeding on roadkill or other carcasses, this member of the Cathartidae bird family serves an important purpose in cleaning up the environment and limiting the spread of diseases to other animals. What other facts do you know about the black vulture?
- Scientific Name: Coragyps atratus
- Common Name: Black Vulture, American Black Vulture, Buzzard, Black Buzzard
- Lifespan: 9-11 years
- Size: 24-26 inches
- Weight: 2.6-4.3 pounds
- Wingspan: 55-60 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Black Vulture Identification
This bird's bare, bald head immediately identifies it as a vulture, and while its black plumage would seem to be easily identified, black vultures can often be confused with other raptors. Noting the key field marks to properly identify the black vulture starts with its large, relatively thing, strongly hooked, dark bill with an ivory-white tip. These birds have relatively long legs and a stocky build with a short tail. Genders are similar with overall sooty black coloration that may show slightly iridescent green on the back in good sunlight. The head and throat are bare gray-black, slightly wrinkled skin that may show dark hairs or patchy fuzz. Silvery-white primary feathers are mostly visible in flight but still show dark edges at close range. The legs and feet are light gray-white, and the eyes are dark brown or dark orange.
Juvenile birds are similar to adults but have less bare skin on the head and have a fully dark bill. Young black vultures are often easily confused with turkey vultures where the species' ranges overlap.
These birds are generally silent, but juveniles in the nest have a guttural, low growling hiss. A breathy “woof” barking call can occasionally be heard from excited or agitated adults, and other vocalizations include grunts and groans, typically from nesting adults.
Black Vulture Habitat and Distribution
The black vulture is an adaptable species that can be found in a variety of habitats including swamps, grasslands, open woodlands, agricultural fields, beaches, and even urban and suburban areas. These vultures are typically absent from the highest mountain elevations or very dense vegetation, however. In the United States, the black vulture’s year-round range extends from Virginia and Kentucky to Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas, continuing south into Mexico. The bird’s range also includes all of Central America and South America as far as central Chile and central Argentina.
The overall range of the black vulture is gradually expanding to the north and west, but slowly. Vagrant sightings have been reported as far away from the expected range as Maine, California, and Wisconsin.
In summer, some black vultures do spread slightly further north to breed in southern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Those same northern populations will migrate south in the winter, but most black vultures do not migrate.
These birds can be solitary but are more often found in groups, and they will occasionally form mixed flocks with turkey vultures, particularly when in search of food. Black vultures have keen eyesight but a less developed sense of smell, and they will often follow turkey vultures to a food source. They can be aggressive around food and will chase off other carrion-eating birds. They can also be fearless around a good food source, and may run with a bobbling, hopping, awkward gait on and off the road when traffic passes as they feast on roadkill. These are communally roosting birds, and they can often be seen perched with their wings spread for sunning, especially during the morning.
The black vulture’s flight features choppy, uneven wing beats and short glides. When threatened, they may regurgitate before taking flight to lighten their weight for a more effective getaway.
Diet and Feeding
Like all vultures, black vultures eat primarily carrion, including roadkill, hunting remains, and other deceased animals. They may feed on dead beached fish or marine mammals, and will also raid nests for eggs. On rare occasions, these birds may eat newborn mammals, but typically their prey has died before they reach it.
These are monogamous, colonial birds that mate after courtship displays that include strutting and head bobs. They do not build a nest, and instead eggs are laid on bare ground or in a shallow depression in a cave, hollow stump, hollow log, or abandoned building.
Eggs and Young
Eggs range from light gray-green to light blue-white in color and have darker brown or purple splotches near the larger end. Only one brood is laid each year, and while two eggs is the most common, broods can range from 1-3 eggs.
Both parents incubate the eggs for 36-48 days, and after the young hatch, both parents bring food to the hatchlings for an additional 75-95 days until the young birds can fly agilely and seek out food themselves.
Black Vulture Conservation
While black vultures are not considered threatened or endangered, they can be at risk from DDT and other pesticide poisoning, as well as unintentional lead poisoning from the carcasses they feed on. Some nesting habitat loss can cause regional population declines, and farmers will occasionally disrupt the birds because they will, in rare instances, kill or harass newborn livestock. Vehicle collisions are also a threat in areas where these birds feed on roadkill. Overall, however, black vulture populations continue to expand and the bird’s range is increasing.
Tips for Backyard Birders
These are not backyard birds and while they will not visit bird feeding stations, they can occasionally be seen at large landfills or dumps. They are often spotted along roadsides where roadkill is common, and drivers should be cautious when approaching feeding black vultures to avoid hitting the birds. In suburban or rural areas, they may visit front yards along roadways if roadkill is present. In some areas, these birds can be considered a nuisance as they congregate in large flocks when roosting or when a good food source is found.
How to Find This Bird
Black vultures are not difficult to find, and can often be seen soaring on thermal currents. They are social and typically stay in groups, and may even frequent hunting clubs or zoo habitats where they will pilfer food. Watching for their distinctive wing pattern and soaring flight can help birders identify black vultures in the air.
Explore More Species in This Family
There are seven species of vultures and condors that are part of the Cathartidae bird family, and all of them are found in the New World. Old World vultures and buzzards are part of the Accipitridae bird family and are still familiar relatives of the black vultures. Related birds to discover include:
Don't miss our other bird profile fact sheets to learn even more amazing trivia about all your favorite wild bird species!