Birding at the Woodlands: All About Vultures - Happy Vulture Day!

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day!! Yes, vultures (the awesome birds they are) have an awareness day; it's the first Saturday in September every year. In honor of this day, here's a blog all about the silky scavengers! (Since vultures are one of my favorite birds, I quite enjoyed this particular post!)

Now, I know vultures are not the most popular animal, but they are truly fascinating birds that puke on their enemies and fly using energy from the sun! Interested? Read on!

Black Vulture, photo by Toribird

Black Vulture, photo by Toribird

One reason why vultures are disliked probably has to do with their featherless, wrinkled faces. Which brings us to the question, why do they have bald heads anyway? Well, like so many other things in nature, it's an adaptation that helps them survive. Since vultures are scavengers that eat dead animals, their heads would constantly be covered in gross things if they had feathers for it to get stuck in. So, having unattractive heads is actually what keeps the birds clean and healthy!

Because vultures eat things that are already dead, they very rarely kill, so they don't have many natural weapons the way hawks and other predatory birds do. But don't be fooled - vultures have their own way of protecting themselves: vomit! They have very powerful stomach acid, and vomit is inherently gross, so it does a great job of discouraging anything that might bother a vulture. Also, barfing lightens the bird, making it easier for them to take off and make a quick getaway - isn't that clever?

If you watch a vulture fly, you may notice that it doesn't flap much, especially compared to birds like ducks or sparrows. Many larger birds frequently take advantage of rising columns of sun-warmed air called thermals. Though the air is of course invisible, you can spot a thermal by spotting for the birds circling and rising in it. Thermals make it easy for vultures to get up high - without the birds having to do much work - which is important because they need to cover a lot of ground as their food could be anywhere.

I'm hoping that you want to see a vulture now, and I'm happy to say that they are easy to spot in Philly! We have two species, the Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture. Of the two, Turkeys might be more common. Both species can be seen flying overhead and circling in thermals. They're not really tied to any particular habitat, so keep an eye to the sky anytime you're outside, or look for them perched on water towers or antennas. Any large, dark birds you see could be vultures. Keeping an eye out as you drive on the highway might actually be the best way to see them!

The two species are a bit similar, but can usually be ID'd without much trouble. They are an excellent challenge for new birders! Let's have a look at how to tell them apart:

Black Vulture:

  • Black overall, grey head

  • Broad wings with silver-white tips

  • Does not rock, frequent snappy wingbeats

  • Shorter tail

Turkey Vulture:

  • Dark brown overall, red head

  • Long, two-toned wings

  • Rocks back and forth in flight, floppy wingbeats

  • Long tail

Turkey Vulture, photo by Toribird

Turkey Vulture, photo by Toribird

Black Vulture, photo by Toribird

Black Vulture, photo by Toribird

Happy Vulture Day!

- Toribird