Black Vulture Life History

Habitat

Habitat GrasslandsBlack Vultures live year-round in forested and open areas of the eastern and southern United States south to South America. They have expanded their range northward in the last several decades and are now seen regularly as far north as New England. Most abundant at low elevations, they breed in dense woodlands but usually forage in open habitats and along roads. Some live in semirural suburbs. Black Vultures roost in undisturbed stands of tall trees, including sycamores, pines, hickories, oaks, junipers, and bald cypress, as well as structures like electrical pylons. Roost sites are often close to water and next to obstructions that generate updrafts of air, to help the flock take flight in the early morning.Back to top

Food

Food CarrionBlack Vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion, locating it by soaring high in the skies on thermals. From this vantage they can spot carcasses and also keep an eye on Turkey Vultures—which have a more developed sense of smell—and follow them toward food. Black Vultures often gather in numbers at carcasses and then displace Turkey Vultures from the food. Their carrion diet includes feral hogs, poultry, cattle, donkeys, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, striped skunks, and armadillos. Sometimes Black Vultures wade into shallow water to feed on floating carrion, or to catch small fish. They occasionally kill skunks, opossums, night-herons, leatherback turtle hatchlings, and livestock, including young pigs, lambs, and calves. They also often investigate dumpsters and landfills to pick at human discards.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest CliffBlack Vultures usually nest in dark cavities such as caves, hollow trees, abandoned buildings, brush piles, thickets, and stumps. Pair reuse successful sites for many years.

Nest Description

Black Vultures lay their eggs directly on the ground.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-3 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.6-3.5 in (6.6-9 cm)
Egg Width:1.8-2.2 in (4.5-5.6 cm)
Incubation Period:38-39 days
Nestling Period:70-98 days
Egg Description:Pale green or sometimes bluish white, usually with a few large brown blotches on the larger end.
Condition at Hatching:Helpless and covered with thick yellowish or pinkish down, with open eyes.
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Behavior

Behavior Soaring (raptor)Black Vultures are monogamous, staying with their mates for many years, all year round. They feed their young for as many as eight months after fledging, and maintain strong social bonds with their families throughout their lives. Black Vultures roost in large flocks in the evening, using the communal roost as a meeting place where foraging groups can assemble and adults can reconvene with their young. Unsuccessful foragers can locate food by following their roost mates to carcasses. Black Vultures aggressively prevent nonrelatives from joining them at roosts or following them to food sources. They attack each other by pecking, biting, wing-pummeling, and foot-grappling. At carcasses Black Vultures are subordinate to Crested Caracaras as well as (farther south in their range) King Vultures and Andean Condors.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernBlack Vultures are numerous and their populations increased between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of this very wide-ranging bird at about 20 million, with about 9% living in the U.S. and 8% in Mexico. They rate a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. In the 1800s people regarded Black Vultures as beneficial scavengers and tolerated them around meat markets in the southeastern U.S. This attitude changed in the early twentieth century, when some people became concerned about vultures spreading disease (despite a dearth of scientific evidence). Vultures were trapped, poisoned and shot by the thousands until the 1970s. Black Vultures have also faced threats including fewer available nest sites and collisions with cars. Like other large birds they were vulnerable to egg-thinning effects of DDT in the mid-twentieth century, and along with other carrion-eaters they are susceptible to lead poisoning from lead shot that remains in carcasses. However, Black Vultures have rebounded and expanded their range considerably to the north and east. This is probably due in part to increasing availability of roadkill and warmer temperatures associated with global climate change.Back to top

Credits

Buckley, Neil J. 1999. Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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