6 Simple Steps to tell a Turkey Vulture from a Black Vulture

Black Vulture and Turkey Vultures are relatively common and similar in appearance. A common question is how to tell the Black Vulture from the Turkey Vulture?

In this article, I list 6 simple steps to identify these two vultures apart with certainty.

First, start by determining if both the Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture occur in the region you are trying to identify one. Then, see that the head of the Black Vulture is dark-gray and the Turkey Vulture is red.

In-flight, the Black Vulture is all black with silver-gray patches on the tip of the wings. The Turkey Vulture has bicolored underwing.

Perched, the Black Vulture has black plumage, a chunky body, and longer legs. The Turkey Vulture has a dark brown plumage and a slender body.

Additional steps help support and help reassure the first three steps.

1. Determine if both vultures occur in the region

The first step to begin identifying vultures is determining if both species occur in the area where you are trying to tell them apart.

The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) is restricted to the southern and northeastern states. The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is widespread throughout the U.S. and Southern Canada, particularly during the year’s warmer months.

black-vulture range map

Black Vulture
It is more abundant in the southern states, from South Carolina to Texas. Black Vultures have expanded their range northward along the East Coast since the 1940s. Now they regularly occur in northeastern states up to southeast Canada.

 

turkey-vulture range map

Turkey Vulture
It is the more widespread vulture ranging through most of the U.S. and southern Canada. The Turkey Vulture is present year-round in the southern and northeastern states within the same range as the Black Vulture. During February through November, resident and migratory birds occupy most of the U.S. and Canada.

 

2. Tell them apart by the head

Differences in head appearance are perhaps the fastest way two tell the Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture apart.

head of a black vulture

Black Vulture
The head and throat are dark-gray with densely folded skin. The bill is thin and relatively longer than that of the Turkey Vulture. The bill is black with a lighter tip. The nostrils are tiny and not noticeable. Immature birds have a dark rather than a gray head.

 

 

turkey vulture head

Turkey Vulture
The head is red with folded skin. The intensity of the red color and pattern varies among individuals of certain ages as well as different races. The bill is pure white with a strong hook. At a closer look, notice the Turkey Vulture’s perforate nostrils; one can see through the bird’s nostrils. Immature birds have a dark head, which turns red as they become adults.

 

3. In-flight, notice the underwings colors

The Black Vulture is entirely black with silver-gray patches on the tip of the wings. The wings are broad, and the tail is short and roundish.

In comparison,  the Turkey Vulture has a black body and bicolored underwings. The wings are long and narrow, with silver-gray underwing feathers contrast with the black color of the wing’s leading edge. The tail is long and stubby.

The wingspan of the Turkey Vulture is longer than in the Black Vulture by about 1 foot.

black vulture in flight

Black Vulture
The wingspan is approximately 4.7 feet. The broad wings and short tail give the impression of having a roundish trailing edge silhouette. The tip of the toes reach the tip of the tail, but this can be difficult to notice.

The Black Vulture is more likely to be seen beating its wings. Wingbeats are quick and snappy.

The Black Vulture holds its wings in a flat formation while soaring.

 

Turkey Vulture
The wingspan is approximately 5.7 feet. The long and narrow wings are well separated from the long and stubby tail. The Turkey Vulture seldom beats its wings. It soars with an unsteady but graceful teetering motion. Its feet, during flight, are far from the tip of the tail.

The Turkey Vulture holds its wings in a shallow V-formation while soaring.

 

4. Standing, see the differences in plumage

Perched black vultures are stocky with relatively long legs.

Turkey Vultures have a slenderer figure with shorter legs. They appear shorter in stature.

 

Black-Vulture-standing

Black Vulture
The plumage is entirely black. The tail is very short and covered by the folded wings. The legs are blackish-brown but look whitish. This is because vultures have the habit of defecating on their own legs, creating a whitish excrement coating on their legs.

 

turkey_vulture_standing

Turkey Vulture
The plumage is overall dark brown with feathers with lighter edges. The tail is longer but is concealed by the bird’s long folded wings. The legs are red but often look whitish. As with other vultures, legs and feet may appear whitish from the habit of defecating on their own legs, creating a coating of excrement.

 

5. Differences in the spread-wing posture

Both the Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture regularly spread their wings and tail while perched.

The Black Vulture shows an entirely black plumage with silver-gray patches on the tips of their wings.

The Turkey Vulture shows a uniform dark brown plumage on the body and the wings.

 

black vulture spread wing posture

Black Vulture
Both the Black and Turkey Vultures normally do this in the morning perches facing away from the sun. Birds adopt this posture while the sun is rising and normally lasts from only a few seconds to 15 minutes. Vultures also adopt the spread-wing posture during the rain.

 

turkey vulture spread wing posture

Turkey Vulture
Spreading their wings in the morning is likely to help birds dry they feather from the humidity accumulated overnight. Adopting the spread-wing position during the rain is likely to replace a bath and help clean up feathers from pieces of food stuck in their plumage. The spread-wing position is also likely to help bird regulate their temperature on hot days.

 

6. Differences in measures and behavior

The Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture are similar in weight but differ markedly in the wingspan, with the Turkey Vulture having a longer wingspan.

 

Measurements Black Vulture Turkey Vulture
Weight 56.4-77.6 oz (1600-2200 g) 70.5 oz (2000 g)
Wingspan (1) 53.9-59.1 in (137-150 cm) 66.9-70.1 in (170-178 cm)
Lenght (2) 23.6-26.8 in (60-68 cm) 25.2-31.9 in (64-81 cm)

(1) Lenth between the extended tips of the wings.
(2) Measured from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail.

Black vultures forage for carcasses in open and semiopen areas. The Turkey Vulture feeds in both forested and semi-open spaces.

  • The Black Vulture is more likely to be found near humans. It can be seen perched in utility poles and may roost next to houses and buildings.
  • The Turkey Vulture is a shy bird that avoids humans and generally perches and roosts within some distance of human settlements.
  • At a carcass, black vultures are generally more numerous and more aggressive than the Turkey Vulture.

Related links:

Final Remarks:

Telling the Black Vulture from a Turkey Vulture can be easy following these steps.

The first 4 steps are the most important to consider. The final 2 supports what is said in the previous 4 steps.

First, determine if both vultures occur in the site you are trying to make the identification.

Then, see the characteristics of the bird’s head. This should provide enough clues to make your identification.

Vultures are mostly seen soaring. The Black Vulture has an all-black plumage and broad wings with silver-gray patches on the tip of the wings. The Turkey Vulture has bicolored underwing without the silver-gray patch on the tip of the wings.

Perched birds allow for the observation of more details. The Black Vulture is all black with long while the Turkey Vulture has a dark brown plumage and shorter and red legs.

Do you feel something was missed in comparing these two vultures?

 

References:

  • Gill, Frank (1995). Ornithology. New York: W.H. Freeman.
  • Mchargue, L. A. (1981). Black Vulture nesting, behavior, and growth. Auk 98:182-185.
  • Thomas, E. S. (1928). Nesting of the Black Vulture in Hocking County, Ohio. Ohio State Mus. Sci. Bull. 1:29-35.
  • Audubon.0rg: The Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture

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