Is There a Difference Between a Vulture and a Buzzard?
Some people would call the handsome bird in the above photo a buzzard. Some would call him a vulture. Some would say "turkey buzzard" or "turkey vulture." Which term is right, and what's the difference between a vulture and buzzard?
It depends on whether you want to be technical or colloquial, and also where you live. This bird is officially called a Turkey Vulture. If you're in much of North America, you can call him a buzzard and almost everybody will know what kind of bird you're talking about. However, if you talk to somebody from England and mention a buzzard, he or she might think you're talking about a completely different bird.
Okay, so technically speaking, what's a vulture?
A vulture is a type of bird that eats primarily carrion. Vultures are large birds - even the smallest vulture species, the Hooded Vulture, has a wingspan of about 5 feet. There are seven species of New World vultures (vultures that live in the western hemisphere) and fifteen Old World vultures (those that live in the eastern hemisphere). As it turns out, New World and Old World vultures aren't closely related. Old World vultures are in the family Accipitridae, which puts them in the same group as hawks and eagles. New World vultures have their own family, Cathartidae, and some ornithologists believe they are more closely related to storks and herons than birds of prey.
Even though Old World and New World vultures have genetic differences, they are all considered vultures. This is because they have similar appearances (most have featherless heads and many have featherless necks as well), and they have the same ecological role as nature's clean up crew. They are all scavengers, which means they generally eat what's already dead rather than kill for food.
Then what's a buzzard?
"Buzzard" comes from "buteo," which is the genus name for several species of the type of bird North Americans call hawks. Buteo hawks are all fairly large raptors.
The Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, is native to Europe and Asia. However, there are Buteo species throughout much of the world. Several live in North America, such as Buteo jamaicensis (the Red-tailed Hawk), Buteo lineatus (the Red-shouldered Hawk), and Buteo platypterus (the Broad-winged Hawk). A visitor from Europe may refer to these birds as "buzzards" rather than hawks, because they are not technically "true hawks." True hawks are part of the genus Accipiter (such as Accipiter cooperii, the Cooper's Hawk).
Whether you call them buzzards or hawks, Buteos are true birds of prey. Unlike vultures, they have feathered heads and they hunt for and kill live prey, although they can and will eat carrion if it's available.
Why do some people refer to vultures as buzzards?
According to the Turkey Vulture Society, this probably goes back to the time of the colonists. England has no native vultures, so when the settlers arrived, they may have referred to any large soaring bird as a buzzard. The name stuck for turkey vultures, and now, hundreds of years later, the words "buzzard" and "vulture" are still often used as synonyms in American English.
However, just because the words are used as synonyms doesn't mean they always should be. If you use the wrong word around a biologist, ornithologist, or naturalist, you will probably make him or her cringe. Therefore, if you want to use the proper terminology, use the word "vulture" when talking about a scavenging bird with a sharp beak and a (usually) bald head, and "buzzard" when you're talking about a bird from the Buteo genus, such as the Common Buzzard.