Today’s blog focuses on the Turkey Vulture, another one of the most commonly seen birds here in the Southeast. Before we talk about identifying characteristics though, I thought we could dive into the semantics of the terms vulture and buzzard, because it can be pretty confusing.
Before researching this topic, whenever I heard the word “buzzard” I thought of the big birds that are known for eating carrion and foreboding doom. First lesson in semantics here: these flocks are called a committee, a kettle or (my favorite) a wake, and they’re usually circling above an unfortunate creature that strayed too close to the road.
However, the Latin word for buzzard is buteo, which is the genus (genus is the taxonomic category above species and below family) that hawks fall into. These birds that are hovering over a carcass in the road are actually vultures and have no reason to be called buzzards at all besides a mistake that was made centuries ago that somehow stuck.
So why do we think of vultures when we hear the word buzzard?
Well, before America was colonized, buzzard was used to describe any bird in the buteo genus, in other words, any raptor with broad wings, sharp beaks and deadly talons used for hunting small animals. The term vulture was used for birds with naked heads and necks that scavenge for their meals.
When America was being colonized, English speakers noticed that, as Jan Freeman wrote in an article I found (using NCLive) for the Boston Globe, “North America’s vultures, like England’s buzzards, make those lazy circles in the sky; close enough, no doubt, for settlers who, after all, had to call the trees and birds something while they got on with surviving.” (1)
So “close enough” is why we picture vultures when we hear the word “buzzard” which should actually bring to mind one of the many hawks that are classified under the genus “buteo”. Peterson’s guide to hawks has a similar viewpoint on the topic: “The misnomer “buzzard” was given to the […] vultures by early settlers, who thought these birds were related to the European buteo with this name. Unfortunately, the name is still in common use.” (2)
Now, among the vultures of the world; we have Old World Vultures and New World Vultures. Even though these birds are very similar they are not closely related. They are a result of convergent evolution, a process that, over time, causes two species to evolve and adapt similarly in two different environments. (3) So New World Vultures descended from a stork-like bird that lived in North, Central and South America, and the Old World Vultures descended from a bird of prey that lived in Africa, Europe and Asia and they both acquired similar characteristics such as the naked head (that helps in keeping the bird’s head free from harmful bacteria), the ability to digest rotten meat (thanks to extremely strong stomach acid), and strong necks and beaks (for tearing into carcasses). (4)
Certain differences between the two show us that they evolved from different ancestors. New World Vultures have weaker feet; like storks, these vultures have feet that are made for walking, as opposed to the stronger feet of the Old World Vultures that are made for catching live prey. Another difference between the two is the way New World Vultures use their sense of smell to find carrion and an Old World Vulture uses its sight. New World Vultures also have no voice box and, one more difference, perhaps the most intriguing of all; New World Vultures exhibit the (slightly disgusting, but also pretty cool) behavior of urohidrosis, the act of defecating on their legs as a way to cool down. The droppings are a combination of urine and stool and so when the liquids evaporate, the temperature of the birds’ legs drops significantly. This behavior is typical of storks and of a few species of New World Vultures. (5)
Even though this behavior might make you a little queasy, it’s actually very helpful to the environment. The acid in the vultures’ droppings is so strong, it kills any bacteria left on the ground that came from the carcasses that the vultures were feeding on. Vultures get a bad rap because they only eat dead things (they are known as obligate scavengers because their diet is limited almost exclusively to carrion), but the truth of the matter is that if we didn’t have vultures on clean up duty, we would have a serious problem dealing with the spread of bacteria from dead animals. For instance, India is experiencing a sharp rise in the spread of rabies because of a recent and devastating decline in vulture populations. The decline was caused by the 1993 introduction of a drug that farmers used to treat injured or ill livestock. Diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug and when consumed by vultures, it’s almost immediately fatal. The lack of a strong vulture presence to provide the critical clean-up service allowed the feral dog population to thrive on the increased amount of carrion. Since dogs are a main carrier for rabies, the disease spread faster than ever through the human population. The usage of this drug on cattle has since been outlawed but scientists wonder whether or not the damage has already been done. (6)
So now that we’ve learned to love these giant birds, we can move on to identification.
Of the three types of vultures that live in North America, the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture and the California Condor, there are only two that we see here in North Carolina; the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture. The Turkey Vulture is so named because of its resemblance to a turkey due to its red and naked head. The Black Vulture is completely black with just a patch of white on the underside of its wingtips. There are more Turkey Vultures in the United States than there are Black Vultures but it is still very common to see both species in Western North Carolina. They are both highly sociable, sharing food with relatives and taking care of their young long after they’ve fledged. If you see a committee of Turkey Vultures, there’s a good chance there are Black Vultures nearby because they follow the Turkey Vultures to a food source, as their sense of smell is not as good as the Turkey Vultures.
Turkey Vultures are bigger than Black Vultures, and they have a bright red head. In our area, when you see a big, huge bird soaring above you it is most likely a vulture, so look for identifying characteristics such as the flight pattern, and the size, color, and shape of the wings. A Turkey Vulture’s wings are split in half by dark patagial (shoulder) feathers and lighter trailing feathers. Its tail and wings will also be longer and more narrow than those of the Black Vultures. Sometimes it’s hard to see the bright red head, so the coloring and the length and width of the wings are your best bet.
Now, we do have Bald Eagles in Western North Carolina, so in order to be sure you’re not seeing a Bald Eagle, it’s helpful to know that the Bald Eagle is much bigger than the Turkey Vulture. Bald Eagles also have “fingertips” similar to the vultures, but a Bald Eagle will not have as much of a bend in their shoulders. Also, a Bald Eagle will have a very smooth flight compared to the Turkey Vulture, who, when soaring, tends to teeter sharply back and forth on its wings. (7)
Happy birding! I hope this blog helps you identify between vultures and eagles, sometimes it’s pretty tricky but, like all things, the more you practice, the easier it will be. For some inspiration check out some books from our bird-watching collection. Follow this link to place a hold on All Things Reconsidered, a memoir by Roger Tory Peterson, one of the world’s most famous birders. Peterson traveled the world observing birds and along the way had many adventures. At 80 years old, a boat he was in capsized, tossing him into the frigid waters off the coast of Maine. Or check out one of our many other books full of bird-watching tips and tricks. Follow these links to a few in our catalog to place them on hold: Birding for Beginners, Audobon North American Birdfeeder Guide, Pete Dunne on Bird Watching: The How-to, Where-to, and When-to of Attracting, Finding, Identifying and Enjoying Birds.
- Freeman, J. (1998, Apr 26). Household words, buzzards at bay. Boston GlobeRetrieved from https://login.proxy066.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/405223000?accountid=10928
- p. 15 Peterson Field Guide to Hawks William S. Clark/ Brian K. Wheeler
Vultures great benefit to people, environment. (2017, Feb 23). Springfield News Leader Retrieved from https://login.proxy066.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1870846764?accountid=10928
- Campbell MO (2014) A Fascinating Example for Convergent Evolution: Endangered Vultures. J Biodivers Endanger Species 2:132. doi: 10.4172/2332-2543.1000132
- Biswaranjan P, Sushil Kumar D (2016) Diclofenac Induced Vulture Deaths in Odisha, India: Time to Debate or Conserve Them?. Pharm Anal Acta 7:507. doi:10.4172/2153-2435.1000507