I was chatting with a naturalist buddy of mine a while back and he was talking about a trip he’d taken. He commented that he’d seen some buzzards and I asked, “Black buzzards of turkey vultures?”
If you are not a connoisseur of buzzards, you may not know that around here (southeastern U.S.) there are two common varieties – the American black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and the Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).
The most distinguishing feature is the color of the heads, the black vulture has a naked black head, while the Turkey vulture has a naked red head.
Neither of these two vultures have calls or songs but sometimes they can be heard to grunt or hiss.
Black vultures also do not have a sense of smell. They operate primarily by sight. Turkey vultures, on the other hand, have a very acute sense of smell and can smell food (roadkill etc…) from a great distance (perhaps miles). Black vultures and turkey vultures are often found in groups, with the black vultures following the turkey vultures in order to find food.
Turkey vultures are weak, ungainly fliers. They are easy to distinguish in flight because they hold their wings outstretched and static in a shallow V (“V for Vulture”) and glide on thermals. In flight they typically wobble back and forth and appear almost as clumsy as when they are on the ground. So, when you see a wobbly V in the sky, it’s probably a turkey vulture.
Their primary defense mechanism is sheer nasty grossness. If startled, both species will vomit up a putrid, stream of whatever they have eaten recently. I once heard a story of a poor fellow who had a confused buzzard fly through the open window of his car as he was driving past a roadkill. The frightened bird vomited all over him and the inside his car. The car was never the same and I don’t think he was either.
When I asked my naturalist buddy what kind of buzzards he’d seen on his trip, he thought for a minute and said, “You know, I can’t say the last time I’ve seen a turkey vulture. They used to be all over the place but all I’ve seen lately has been black buzzards.” Upon thinking about it for a few minutes, I can’t say the last time I’ve seen turkey vultures mixed in with the black buzzards.
I called up the state Museum of Natural Science in Jackson and asked for an ornithologist and when he got on the phone I asked him what became of all the turkey vultures and he said that so far as he knew, they were still around – that they’d not had any reports of the species declining.
Both species are listed as “of least concern” by the IUCN and neither is considered endangered in Mississippi. We couldn’t figure out if the population was decreasing or moving elsewhere or if our powers of observation were slipping.
Maybe it’s the observation thing. Maybe now that we’re thinking about it, all we’ll see is turkey vultures. Maybe now that you know a little bit more about them you can send me some cool photos of turkey vultures in Mississippi and I’ll declare you to be a Connoisseur of Buzzards!