Vultures may not win any beauty contests, but they do an excellent job at being the clean-up crew for the world from the sky. So many animals are hit by cars and lay in the hot sun on the side of the road. If you live way out in the country, chances are, if not for vultures and other scavengers, the roadkill would remain there until is finally breaks down. Thanks to animals like vultures, beetles, ants, raptors and some carnivorous mammals that are nature’s garbage collectors, our roads stay free of dead animals.
Most people are familiar with the turkey vulture and it’s naked red head. Anytime a deer carcass is seen beside the road, the turkey vultures usually aren’t too far behind. In this article we will take a look at some of the other vultures patrolling the U.S. sky.
Interesting Facts About Vultures
- Vultures have bald heads because carrion does not stick to their skin the way it does to their feathers.
- By eating carrion, vultures do a service not only of cleaning up but also help slow the spread of toxic bacteria and diseases. They have special enzymes in their stomach to process the harmful bacteria without becoming ill.
- Some vultures can smell carrion from a mile away.
- A group of flying vultures is called a kettle while resting vultures are called a committee or volt.
- Vultures are afraid of hawks and owls.
- When black vultures are interested in each other, they will fly very high up and lock talons, spinning in the sky in a romantic display.
- Old World vultures depend on eyesight to find carrion, though the New World vultures have a keen sense of smell that also helps them find dinner.
- Vultures in Africa follow large predators like lions and wait for them to finish with a kill before flying down to clean up.
Appearance: They have a red, naked head which gives them a similar appearance to turkeys. From far away their wings and underside appear black but are actually dark brown with an almost white beak and feet. Their legs are the same bright red that their heads are. The neck feathers are sometimes black along with the back and chest. The underside of the flight feathers are also the same pale color.
Size: 3.3 – 4.5 pounds, 25 – 32 inches tall, and 25 – 31 inches long.
Wingspan: 5.5 – 6 feet wide
Lifespan: 16 years
Behavior: These large, common birds vomit on animals or people as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. That might not sound like such a tough defense but being vomited on by a carrion eating bird does not rank high on anyone list of favorites.
Habitat: Open grassy plains, country landscapes, foothills, mountains, coastal regions and mountains. These are the most widespread species of vultures in the U.S. They nest in rocky mountain sides or wooded areas with secure nesting available.
Diet: Fresh carrion, decaying vegetation, fish in ponds that are drying up and sometimes insects. They, like the other vultures, are not able to use their feet for grabbing prey so are not able to hunt. Their feet are for walking around carrion. They are also able to use their keen sense of smell to aid in locating carrion.
Appearance: Solid back feathers with board wings with silver tips on the finger wing feathers and a naked, wrinkly black head. These are compact birds with short tail feathers. Some say the silvery white splotches on their wings look like stars in a dark sky.
Size: 3.5 – 6.6 pounds, 23 – 27 inches tall, and 22 – 29 inches long
Wingspan: 4.4 – 5.5 feet wide
Lifespan: 20 – 30 years
Behavior: Surprisingly, black vultures are aggressive birds and have sometimes been known to kill small animals and other birds. Unlike turkey vultures, black vultures lack a good sense of smell. These massive birds are usually seen either soaring through the sky or sitting in a tree, on the ground or on places like transmission towers in a flock. They even have a pecking order.
Habitat: Open grasslands, meadows or the edge of forests, though they spend much of their time patrolling the air for carrion. Substantial forest landscapes usually provide the best of both worlds for the vultures; trees to sit in together, places to lay eggs and also plenty of open clearings to soar over in search of a meal.
Diet: Carrion from large animals and sometimes attacks and kills injured or weak animals and other birds.
Appearance: Second largest vulture with glossy black and contrasting white feathers under the wings. They have a naked yellowish orange to pink head and neck. Immature condors are a mottled greyish-black and do not get adult coloring until they are 6 – 7 years old.
Size: 20 – 24 pounds, 42 – 54 inches tall and 46 – 53 inches long
Wingspan: 10 feet wide
Lifespan: 60 years
Behavior: The condor is a prehistoric bird that is currently critically endangered but making a comeback. After the last ice age, these huge birds fed on carcasses of mammals like the wooly mammoth. Condors reach maturity at 6 – 7 years old, and when they find a mate, they stay together for life. There have also been cases of same-sex pairs and also two females paired with one male.
Habitat: Rocky cliffs, oak savanna, coniferous forests, and rocky shrub-filled areas.
Diet: Carcasses of whales, dolphins, sea lions, deer, and other large mammals.
Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) *Only in the U.S. for a Short Time
Appearance: They are mostly glossy black with a white fluffy collar of down-like feathers. The condors also have white patches on their outer wing feathers. The males have yellow eyes and a large comb on their heads that the females do not have. Females have red eyes and are smaller than the males.
Size: 17 – 33 pounds, 55.9 inches tall, and 36 – 51 inches long,
Wingspan: Maximum of 10 feet 10 inches wide
Lifespan: 50 years
Behavior: The Andean condor is the largest vulture in the United States.
Habitat: Open grasslands and mountains up to 16,000 feet. The vultures nest in rocky crags. They are also found in coastal regions and deserts. The Andean condors were released in California when the California condor was being reintroduced to the wild. They are close relatives, but the Andean condors returned back to the Pacific coast in South America before long. They are communal birds and spend a large amount of their time sunning themselves.
Diet: Carrion of large and small animals. They will occasionally hunt small animals and raid nests.
Vultures are Important to the Ecosystem
Whether you are a fan of vultures or not, they are undeniably an important part of the ecosystem. Without scavengers like vultures, the world would be a much stinkier and more disease ridden place. Each life in the environment has an important role to play and most vultures are not capable of hunting live prey. Their hooked beaks can easily cut through tough cow hide but their talons and feet are useless for picking up live prey.
Not every animal can be cute and fluffy. Hopefully, this article has enlightened you on the importance of vultures. Maybe you are even able to see some cuteness in these massive carrion hunters. To them, we might not be a vision of beauty and grace, either.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © BearFotos/Shutterstock.com
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