By Ali Holton
Characterized by their bald heads, dark feathers and gothic appearance, vultures have historically been incorrectly depicted as scary creatures. Florida is home to two species of vultures: the black vulture and the turkey vulture.
These large, awkward yet beautiful birds are very easily identified. Turkey vultures have a reddish/brown head that is completely lacking feathers and stand slightly taller than black vultures. In comparison, black vultures are almost entirely black, including their bare head, aside from white patches that can be seen under their wings when in flight. Vulture heads lack feathers in order to keep clean during mealtime when dissecting dead and decaying animals that might otherwise stick to their feathers. This necessary adaptation helps maintain the health of these scavenging birds.
Vultures are commonly observed as a flock soaring in uneven circles that form a ‘V’ with their wings hovering in the open sky. Flight is common while searching for a fresh meal or roadkill. They are also found roosting in trees, scavenging in dumpsters or feeding on the side of the road. Vultures are opportunist scavengers by design.
In North America, turkey vultures largely outnumber black vultures. In Florida, they can often be seen together. This is because turkey vultures have an incredible sense of smell which they use to locate carcasses to feed on. Black vultures rely more heavily on their sight to locate their meals, and often they will advantageously follow turkey vultures to a sometimes-shared food source. Turkey vultures have been recorded living up to 16 years in the wild while black vultures have been recorded surviving for over 25 years.
Vultures play a vital role in the ecosystem and are of great value to the environment. Feeding primarily on carrion (dead and decaying animals, usually in the form of roadkill or deceased cattle), vultures act as nature’s ‘cleanup crew.’ Vultures also will hunt live prey if and when necessary. This is more common for the black vultures than the turkey vultures.
An interesting fact about vultures is that they are not nesting birds. Rather, they lay their eggs on the ground, usually under cover near thick brush or in hollow tree trunks.
Vultures are state and federally protected under the migratory bird act, which means it is illegal to harm or kill them without permission. Please never feed or approach wildlife and remember to do your part to keep Florida Wild.