Though scavengers of dead animals and reviled by some people, black vultures are always clean and not repulsive in appearance.

On the contrary, I think they are handsome in their own way. Their feathering and naked heads are black, but they have off-white legs. And they have a white patch of feathers near each wing tip that is visible from below when they soar.

Black vultures live and nest from the southern half of the United States through Mexico, Central America, and South America and to southern Argentina and Chile. They have been common in southeastern Pennsylvania since the early 1970s.

Here, each pair of black vultures hatches two young a year in large, broken-off trees; tree stumps; hollow, fallen logs; and cavities in rock cliffs, including quarry walls.

Black vultures and turkey vultures search for food in groups, each species in flocks of its own or in mixed gatherings. Turkey vultures are better at finding dead animals because they have an excellent sense of smell, which is unusual for birds. Turkey vultures watch each other when soaring, and black vultures watch their cousins for indications of a carcass on the ground.

When a soaring turkey vulture suddenly spirals down to the ground, all other vultures of both species within viewing distance see this as an indication of food and sail across the sky to where the first vulture descended. All those vultures sweep down to the other vultures and the carcass on the ground.

nature black vulture 600Gatherings of black vultures at a dead animal are interesting to watch. Black vultures stalk about on foot, almost like chickens in a barnyard, lunge at each other to get closer to a meal, and communicate by hisses and muffled barks. Sometimes black vultures chase turkey vultures off a carcass.

But if danger threatens, such as an approaching vehicle on a roadway while they are eating a road-killed animal, both vulture species quickly take to the air and flap and soar away or land in nearby trees. The black vultures alternately flap rapidly, as if in a panic, and soar.

Black vultures are wary, adaptable, and aggressive, traits that lead to their success. And, although black vultures are mainly scavengers of dead animals, they are also predators.

They kill and eat young herons and other larger birds that fall from their nests and aren’t protected by their parents. Black vultures also kill and eat newly hatched sea turtles and other small, helpless creatures.

Wintering groups of black vultures and turkey vultures in southeastern Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, roost overnight in coniferous trees in wooded valleys, either separately or in mixed congregations. Needled boughs block the cold wind and snow, protecting those birds.

Black vultures are more attractive and interesting than people give them credit. They are an intriguing part of southeastern Pennsylvania’s avifauna.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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