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Black Vulture

Coragyps atratus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: CATHARTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky birds with teetering flight, Black Vultures are compact birds with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats. The two species often associate: the Black Vulture makes up for its poor sense of smell by following Turkey Vultures to carcasses. Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty, Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawklike
Hawklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Black Vultures are large raptors. In flight, they hold their broad, rounded wings flat and angled slightly forward. The tail is very short and rounded. They have small, bare heads and narrow but strongly hooked bills.

  • Color Pattern

    These birds are uniform black except for white patches or “stars” on the underside of their wingtips (this can be hard to see in strong light or from far away). The bare skin of the head is black.

  • Behavior

    During the day, Black Vultures soar in flocks, often with Turkey Vultures and hawks. Their flight style is distinctive: strong wingbeats followed by short glides, giving them a batlike appearance. Look for them along highway margins eating roadkill, as well as picking through dumpsters. They roost in groups in trees and transmission towers, typically waiting through the early morning for the air to warm up and for thermals to develop.

  • Habitat

    Look for Black Vultures in open areas within forested landscapes. They typically nest and roost in wooded areas and soar above open areas to seek their food. Black Vultures have substantially increased their range northward in recent decades.

Range Map Help

Black Vulture Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Black Vulture

    Adult
    • Large, all-black vulture
    • Broad wings with white patches at tips
    • Short tail
    • © Adult, Coolidge, Arizona, May 2010
  • Adults

    Black Vulture

    Adults
    • Large, jet-black vulture
    • Short tail
    • Bare, wrinkled gray head
    • Pale tip on gray bill
    • © Dave Boltz, Lorton, Virginia, January 2009
  • Adult

    Black Vulture

    Adult
    • Large, all-dark vulture
    • Broad wings with pale patches near tips
    • Short tail
    • Bare, wrinkled dark-gray head
    • © Matt Sim, Texas, January 2012
  • Adult

    Black Vulture

    Adult
    • Stocky, jet-black vulture
    • Bare, wrinkled gray head
    • Pale tip on dark gray bill
    • Short tail
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Centex, San Marcos, Texas, June 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult
    • Tail and wings longer than Black Vulture
    • Two-toned underwings
    • Bare red/pink head with bright white tip on bill
    • Wings held up at angle in flight, rarely flaps
    • © Ned Harris, Winkelman, Arizona, May 2010

Similar Species

Turkey Vultures have longer, straighter wings and longer tails than Black Vultures. They hold their wings upward, in a V-shape, and don’t angle them forward as much as Black Vultures. Turkey Vultures have grayish undersides to their flight feathers, giving their wings a distinct two-toned look instead of the uniform black with white stars that Black Vultures show. Adult Turkey Vultures have red heads, but this can be hard to see at distance and young birds have blackish heads, so be careful in using this for identification. Bald and Golden Eagles are much larger than Black Vultures with longer wings, longer tails, and larger, feathered heads. Immature eagles show isolated white patches on the wings, but the white is not restricted to under the primaries as in Black Vultures. Black Vultures have a broad-winged, short-tailed shape reminiscent of buteos like the Red-tailed Hawk, but buteos have larger heads, slightly longer tails, and are never as uniformly black underneath.

Find This Bird

Keep your eyes to the skies on warm days for Black Vultures soaring high up on thermals. Their broad, forward-canted wings, small head, and short tail give them a distinctive silhouette even if you can’t see any color. They also have a distinctive flight style, giving a few deep, rapid wingbeats and then snapping their wings out wide a little like a baseball umpire signaling “Safe.” In the morning while the air is still cool, look for flocks perched in roost trees or structures, where you may see them spreading their wings to catch the sun. You may also spot these vultures gathering at roadkill or around dumpsters.

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Information Seekers: What do Black Vultures gain from roosting? Living Bird, Autumn 2011