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How To Tell A Black Vulture And A Turkey Vulture Apart

Updated on January 8, 2013

How To Tell A Turkey Vulture From A Black Vulture

Markings and wing shape make turkey vultures and black vultures easy to tell apart.
Markings and wing shape make turkey vultures and black vultures easy to tell apart. | Source

Black Vultures Are More Common Than You Might Think

Black vultures live closely with turkey vultures and can be found side by side in roosts and at feeding sites.
Black vultures live closely with turkey vultures and can be found side by side in roosts and at feeding sites. | Source

What Is A Black Vulture

I'll bet many of you reading this had no idea there even was a black vulture. I have been an avid bird watcher for over 20 years and never knew it until recently. I learned of the fact while writing a piece on the birds of prey living in the Florida Everglades. I already knew about condors, which are also called vultures and I also knew that turkey vultures were sometims called buzzards. Another not-well-know fact from the birding world is that buzzards, true buzzards, are actually hawks, but I digress.

So, back to the point. There are actually two birds in North America that are named vulture; the turkey vulture and the black vulture. These birds often live side by side, inhabit the same roosts and fly in the same flocks. They are also very easy to tell apart if you know what to look for.

True Vultures Live In Asia, Europe And Africa

The bald head and long neck are evolutionary traits of carrion eating birds around the world including turkey vultures, black vultures, true vultures and condors.
The bald head and long neck are evolutionary traits of carrion eating birds around the world including turkey vultures, black vultures, true vultures and condors. | Source

What Is A Vulture

The true vultures are a family of birds living in Asia, Europe and Africa. They have many characteristics that make them similar to American vultures even though they are not related. This is commonly known as convergent evolution. These features include a long neck, bald head and broad wings. The long neck and bald head help the birds eat. They can stick their heads deep into a carcass and are easier to keep clean without feathers. The broad wings help them stay aloft and glide on thermal air currents for hours at a time with little or no flapping. This helps the birds to conserved energy while they wait for a tasty meal to appear.

Turkey Vulture Wing Markings

The markings on turkey vulture wings are distinctive and make it easy to tell them apart from black vultures.
The markings on turkey vulture wings are distinctive and make it easy to tell them apart from black vultures. | Source

Black Vulture Wings Are Very Broad

The wings of black vultures and make them look like they have no neck when they are gliding above you. Notice how the wing tips are pointing straight out compared to the turkey vulture in the picture below.
The wings of black vultures and make them look like they have no neck when they are gliding above you. Notice how the wing tips are pointing straight out compared to the turkey vulture in the picture below. | Source

Turkey Vulture In Flight

Turkey vulture wings have a distinctive shape and appear to be pointing backward while flying.
Turkey vulture wings have a distinctive shape and appear to be pointing backward while flying. | Source

The Differences Between Black And Turkey Vultures

Black Vultures are easy to tell apart from their cousins, the turkey vulture, when they are seated side by side. The turkey vultures head and feathers are much lighter in color than the black vulture along with other obvious characteristics like the skin and feet. In fact, it is the turkey vultures ugly, red, bald head (which closely resembles a turkey) which gives it its name. However, for the most part, unless you luckily stumble upon a feeding frenzy, you will most likely only see these birds side by side in the air. Telling them apart when they are flying hundreds of feet or even a mile or two away may seem difficult but in fact is quite easy. There are two primary features of these birds that differ enough to make a 100% identification from great distances.

  • The Wings both birds have broad wings that taper at the ends. Both birds wings end in flight feathers that spread like fingers as they catch up drafts and maneuver through the air. The differences lie in the shape of the wings and how they hold them while flying. The shoulders of Turkey Vulture wings swoop back from the head briefly before coming to a rounded point and then extending out to the tips. The feathers at the tips appear to be pointing backward. Turkey vultures also tend to hold their wings up and forward while gliding which makes their profile very distinctive. Black vulture wings extend straight out from body and have no curvature of the shoulders. The wings are very broad, nearly as wide as their bodies are long. When you see these birds from beneath they look as if they have no neck. The feathers at the tips of the wings are pointing straight out, in line with the wings and perpendicular to its body. Once you positively identify turkey and black vultures in flight you will never have any trouble telling them apart.
  • Markings The markings of the two birds are also quite distinctive. From the ground it is hard to tell them apart because they both look very dark, except for the pattern of white or pale feathers on the underparts of the wings. Black vultures only have white wing tips while turkey vultures wings are half white underneath extending from the body out to the wing tips. Using this method it is easy to tell birds apart from many miles away while they twist and turn in the rising thermal air currents.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      thanks for the info, very useful

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Excellent work, from one birder to another!

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