While sitting at my desk yesterday, I gazed out the window, as is my habit, just as a large black bird flew by. I don’t usually pay attention to passing crows, but this bird had that something special that made me sit up and take notice. It was bigger than a crow, heavier, and sported stark white patches at the end of each ebon wing, a field mark that drew me in instantly. Black Vulture!
A Black Vulture sighting is an unexpected treat for me, one that conjures to mind Core Team adventures in sultry Central America. I ducked outside for a closer look and got reasonably close to one of two magnificent heaps of bird perched nonchalantly rather close to my office parking lot. There it slouched in all its shaggy glory, majestic in monochrome. I drank in the sight of the vulture in both repose and flight as it winged its way, white patches flashing, to a tall conifer.
The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) is a large raptor of the American tropics, found stateside most frequently in Texas but capable of popping up anywhere in the southeast or Atlantic coast. A vulture of this species is just a bit smaller than its cousin in the family Cathartidae, the Turkey Vulture, also displaying a shorter tail and wings. The two share similar tastes, namely an interest in carrion. In fact, Black and Turkey Vultures share the same bald-pate adaptation that makes plunging headfirst into a carcass so much easier, but whereas the latter has a head the color of raw meat, the former calls to mind cinders and dust. With its ashen head, bone legs, and Stygian plumage, this bird seems gloomy, almost funereal. Yet Coragyps atratus is a fun-loving raptor, aggressive and opportunistic, as quick to prey upon weak living animals as it is to feast on dead ones.
Cathartid vultures are very social and tend to hang out together. My recent sighting included both flavors, Black and Turkey. The smaller bird, what Audubon called the Carrion Crow, is a bit tougher than the larger Turkey Buzzard and is not above bullying the bigger bird away from a food source.
This was only my second North American sighting of Black Vultures, though both times, coincidentally, happened to be in New Jersey. The New Yorker in me would love to make a crack about the connection between Jersey and birds attracted to the stench of rotting meat, but I’ll hold my tongue…