THROUGH THE WOODS: The black vulture

Black vulture and squirrel. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THERE HAVE BEEN some recent local discussions about large, black vultures with black, featherless heads which have been seen around Columbia County. Our usual vulture is the turkey vulture, which has scavenged our area since I was a child on our farms in the Town of Austerlitz in the 1950s. It has a reddish featherless head. We had to control animals like woodchucks, and as soon as one was killed in a field there would be at least one turkey vulture flying down to feed.

Vultures have an incredibly keen sense of smell and soar high over vast areas until they pick up the smell of death, garbage and food. One summer my father was grilling hamburgers in the yard for a family barbecue when we suddenly had eight turkey vultures circling just above our heads and over the lawn. We joked about which one of us they were checking out. They had picked up the smell of meat.

Our other vulture is the black vulture. There are dozens of black vultures frequenting areas in Greenport by the fast-food places, the County Transfer Station, and the nearby Cedar Park Cemetery, where they find roosts in large evergreens. I first encountered black vultures in the 1970s at central Florida cattle ranches where they were feeding on dead calves. They started showing up in NY about 30 years ago and now are quite common. The theory for their expansion north is our warmer winters and an abundance of food such as roadkill. Sometimes I see mixed flocks of both species of vultures circling in groups called “kettles.”

A great place to observe this is over the Greenport Transfer Station. They must catch the odors of garbage. Sometimes they land at the site in trees and on fences. Once you observe and study them, the two species are easy to tell apart. Turkey vultures are larger, have bare, reddish heads, longer tails, and their wings in flight are black with gray trailing edges. Black vultures are smaller, have black, featherless heads, shorter tails, and their wings are black with light feathers at the tips. If the weather is harsh and carcasses are frozen both species head south. They have difficulty eating frozen food and like milder habitats.

Vultures are nature’s cleanup crew and a valuable part of our planet. The black vulture in the photo was taken this fall near my house. Several birds were eating a dead squirrel in the road, and this one wouldn’t move. More information can be found at Cornell’s “All About Birds” website.

Comments are closed.