Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture: The Main Differences Explained

Written by Colby Maxwell
Updated: February 3, 2022
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In the New World (North and South America), there are seven different vulture species (including two condor species). While not all of them live in the same regions, many of them live together and interact in certain ways. Vultures aren’t enemies, but comparing them gives us valuable insight into the species as a whole. Among the New World vultures, black and turkey vultures are among the most common. Additionally, they are the most likely to interact with one another on a regular basis. Let’s compare some facts between the species and learn the science behind black vultures vs. turkey vultures.

Black Vultures Vs. Turkey Vultures: The Main Differences

There are several key differences between black vultures and turkey vultures. First, while turkey vultures can have a larger wingspan than black vultures, the compact nature of a black vulture provides them with steadier flight. Also, the appearance of the two birds is very different. While turkey vultures have red faces, black vultures are dark across their entire body. Let’s dive into some of the key differences between these two vulture species to see how they compare.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture: Size and appearance

Black Vulture  vs Turkey Vulture
Black vultures have smaller wingspans than turkey vultures.

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Black vultures

There is a reason that black vultures have the name they do – their plumage is mostly black, with their head being featherless and gray-black. Their legs are gray-white, and they have a small patch of white under their wings. Overall, these birds look like the Grim Reaper epitomized into a bird.

When it comes to size, black vultures are around 2 ft. tall, with wingspans reaching upwards of 5 ft. Their large wingspan makes them some of the largest birds in North America. Weight is often dependent on the availability of food, but it’s safe to say that the average black vulture weighs around 4 lbs overall.

Turkey vultures

Turkey vultures also get their name from their looks. With red heads and black-brown bodies, turkey vultures resemble their namesake, although they are much smaller. The undersides of their wings are brown and white, and their legs are light brown or black.

Turkey vultures stand 2.5 ft. tall, and their wingspans can top 6 ft. Although their wingspan is larger than the black vulture, they are about the same weight, coming in around 3 lbs.

Size and Appearance Differences

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture - Black vulture
Black and turkey vultures are similar in size but have different colorations.

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Although the turkey vulture has a longer wingspan, they are known to be a bit unsteady in flight due to their strange proportions. Black vultures are stronger and more compact.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture: Habitat

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture - Turkey Vulture
Black and turkey vultures live in the same areas, but turkey vultures have a slightly wider range to the south.

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Black vultures

Black vultures are stated to be resident species. They range from the Northeastern United States, all the way down through Mexico and South America, as far south as Uraguay. Within this range, they prefer a mixture of open and forested areas, switching between the two with regularity. They also live in rural suburbs across most of the eastern US. They are often seen sitting on poles, congregating on cell towers, and on the ground eating roadkill.

Turkey vultures

Turkey vultures inhabit a similar range to that of the black vulture. They are present in the eastern United States, all the way south to the tip of South America. Turkey vultures generally prefer open woodlands and often roost or nest alongside black vultures. They can be seen soaring in the sky, often while driving through open forests or near roads. They are also seen while feeding on roadkill, often alongside black vultures.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture: Diet

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture
Vultures eat carrion, but will occasionally eat small dying animals if they happen to find them.

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Black vultures

Vultures are carrion eaters, meaning they eat dead and decaying material. Black vultures prefer small to medium-sized carcasses (deer, possums, and more) but have no issue feeding on reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish. They almost exclusively eat dead meat, ensuring that it has been dead for a few days to make feeding easier.

Turkey vultures

Turkey vultures are also carrion eaters. A turkey vulture will eat almost anything that is dead, but their diet mostly consists of small to medium-sized mammals. They will also eat reptiles, other birds, and fish but aren’t too picky. They usually wait until a carcass is able to be pulled apart since they aren’t strong enough to fully tear the flesh off of fresh kills. Roadkill is a common dietary source for turkey vultures.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture: Hunting skills

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures have a superior sense of smell. So much better, in fact, that black vultures often rely on them to find food.

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Black vultures

Black vultures don’t really hunt due to their scavenging preference. Even if they did, their beak and talons are rather dull and weak when compared to other raptors like eagles and hawks. They are occasionally known to kill small animals, but it’s usually only when the prey is incredibly sick and weak already. Since black vultures have no sense of smell, they rely on sight to find their prey.

Turkey vultures

Turkey vultures have little to no hunting ability, just like the black vulture. Their talons are too dull and weak to make catching food realistic. The main difference between the two birds, however, is their sense of smell. Turkey vultures have an incredible sense of smell (not common for vultures). They can smell carrion miles away, hidden under leaves or undergrowth. Turkey vultures are so much better at finding food than black vultures that black vultures often just wait and follow them instead of looking on their own.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture: Flying skills

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture
Vultures are generally poor fliers and rely on thermal air currents.

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Black vultures

Vultures, as a general rule, are poor flyers. Black vultures are short and compact with relatively small wingspans comparatively. Still, their compact nature allows them to get powerful wingbeats in when they need to. When they don’t, they simply float on air thermals in their famous circular pattern, looking for food.

Turkey vultures

Turkey vultures are also bad flyers. Their wingspan is longer, but they are lankier than the black vulture. As a result, they can seem a bit wobblier in their flight patterns. Like the black vulture, they prefer to coast on air thermals instead of exerting energy on flying.

Conclusion

These two species are incredibly similar in all but appearance. They occupy the same environmental niches and even the same physical ranges. As a result, they live together, sleep together, and eat together. The main differences between the two are the turkey vulture’s ability to smell carrion and the black vultures slightly more compact build.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture - Vultures

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About the Author

Colby is a freelance writer from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he isn't distracted by his backyard birdfeeder, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone around him about what he's recently learned. There's a whole world to learn about and Colby is content to spend his life learning as much as he can about it!

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