Black Vulture: Overview

The black vulture is a common and familiar bird throughout its range. It is a large black bird that almost always travels in flocks. Black vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion. They congregate at food sources in large numbers. Typically, flocks can be seen consuming roadkilled animals.

Common name: American Black Vulture
Other names: Black Buzzard, Carrion Crow
Scientífic name: Coragyps atratus
Order: Cathartiformes
Family: Cathartidae
Habitat: Open and semiopen habitats
Movements: Sedentary
Conservation Status: Least concern
Population trend: Increasing
Global population: ~ 190,000,000 individuals
Lifespan: At least 25 years and six months

Meaning of scientific name

  • Coragyps: Gr. Korax= crow; and gyps= vulture, buzzard
  • atratus: L. ater, atra= black. atratus= dressed in black
    Photo: Mick Thompson.

Meaning of common name

The word vulture can be traced to the Anglo-French word voutoir, voutre, or vautour. Also to the Latin word voltur or vultur, which perhaps derives from “vellere”; to pluck to tear. Black describes the color of the bird’s plumage.


Black Vulture Habitat

Black vultures are habitat generalists. They inhabit any open pristine or disturbed habitats, including urban and suburban areas.

Vultures are often seen near roads, landfills, dumpsters, and places where food can be found.

Black vultures seldom enter the interior of dense woodlands, though if food is found there, they will not hesitate.

Breeding Habitat

The breeding habitat is also diverse. They nest in interior woodlands, usually close to forest edges. They readily use abandoned or little-used barns, sheds, dilapidated houses, or any structure that offers a sheltered cover. 

Photo: Cyndy Sims Parr.

Roosting Habitat

Black vultures roost in stands of tall trees that offer easy access and takeoff. They also roost in latticed communication towers, which mimic the conditions of tall stands of trees.

As long as the conditions are met, the location of roosting sites does not matter. There are black vulture roosting sites in pristine woodlands, farmland, and urban areas. 


Behavior

The black vulture is a gregarious bird that is rarely seen alone. During the breeding season, they can be found in isolated pairs, but other than that, they move in flocks of varying sizes.

Black vultures are easily identified by their habit of gathering around carcasses and roosting together, often in large numbers.

The black vulture has adapted to living with humans. They can be confident enough to walk near humans and take advantage of the food generated by human activities. 

In parts of its range, black vultures walk alongside farm chickens. They also gather at local markets where garbage accumulates.


Vocalizations

Black vultures are usually silent because they lack the bird’s sound-producing organ, a “voice box” called the syrinx. They can produce a variety of grunts, hisses, and snorts, particularly when they are defending the nest.

The bird giving this vocalization was recorded while in its nest.


Black Vulture Distribution in the Americas

In North America, black vultures are found in the Southeast and Southcentral States. They range northward along the Atlantic coast up to Connecticut. They can also be found in the southern parts of Arizona. 

Map generated by eBird.org.

Black vultures are found throughout Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Islands, and South America. 

In South America, black vultures are widespread but are rare or absent from the Atacama Desert region of western Peru and northwest Chile. It is rare in the southern third of South America east of the Andes, but reappears in Southern Chile, west of the Andes.

In North America, the range of black vultures is expanding further north. In regions or traditionally infrequent sightings, more individuals have been reported in the last few years.

Black Vulture Migration

The black vulture is a year-round resident in most of North America’s range. During the cold months, most black vultures retreat to warmer regions to the south, but a few individuals remain in place through the winter.

Little is known about the movement of the black vulture in other parts of its range. 


Food habits of Black Vultures

Vultures eat mostly carrion of all sizes but prefer large animal carcasses. In wild places, black vultures eat carcasses of large game animals. Near farms, they eat dead livestock. Around poultry farms, they consume discarded chickens.

In cities, black vultures scavenge garbage dumps for discarded meat, fresh and rotten fruit, as well as other scraps.

Black vultures patrol roads in search of road-killed animals. Photo: Andrew Reding.

They are attracted by the afterbirth remains of livestock. 

Black vultures have been observed pulling on newborns’ fresh umbilical cords, often causing enough damage to kill them.

Black vultures regularly walk the streets of some South American cities looking for food scraps in trash cans. 

They gather in large numbers at local markets, especially at the fish, meat, and poultry sections, where scraps are constantly thrown at the vultures.


Black vulture nesting

Black Vultures form monogamous relationships that often last for as long as both members of the pair survive.

Nesting pairs chose dark, cave-like nesting sites such as hollow trees, small caves in cliffs, abandoned barns, dilapidated houses, sheds, attics, under brush piles, and thickets. 

The black vulture egg color varies from greenish to pale bluish with dark brown blotches, streaks, and specks concentrated on the wide side of the egg.


How long does a black vulture live?

Black vultures have long lives. The oldest individual died at the age of 25 years and six months. It was banded/ringed in the State of Louisiana and found dead in the same state, according to “Longevity Records of North American Birds,” compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.


How many black vultures are there?

Black vultures are abundant. The Partners in Flight Science Committee (2021) estimate that the global population is 190,000,000 mature individuals. 

These population estimates are rough approximations for landbirds breeding in the U.S. and Canada. The estimates are based on data from the Breeding Bird Survey, which was designed to derive indices of population trend, not measures of population density. (Thogmartin et al. 2006). 


Black vultures function in the ecosystem

Black vultures feed on dead animals and play an important role in the ecosystem. 

  • They help recycle nutrients by eating animal carcasses. 
  • Due to their rapid consumption of diseased animals, vultures help to slow down and even stop the spread of disease. 
  • Vultures consume many dead animals that would otherwise need to be incinerated. In places where dead animals would rot and smell for months, potentially spreading disease, their cleaning services are essential. Black vultures can remove large carcasses in a matter of days.

Interactions with humans

There are several ways in which vultures come into conflict with humans: 

  • It is possible for black vultures to attack and kill newborn calves and other livestock. 
  • There is a fear that they could transmit diseases through their feces when they roost near houses.
  • Vultures are known for damaging property. Sometimes flocks of black vultures tear rubber, plastic, and other items from cars, greenhouses, and agricultural installations. 

Consequently, black vultures can be shot, poisoned, and kept away from their roosting places.

Problems with black vultures outside the U.S. have led to prescribed cullings.


Conservation Status 

Are they in danger of extinction and protected by law?

The black vulture is not in danger of extinction. Quite the opposite, their population numbers are increasing. As the population of humans and urban areas expands, so do black vulture populations.

Sources:

Alarcon, P. A., and S. A. Lambertucci (2018). A three-decade review of telemetry studies on vultures and condors. Movement Ecology 6:13.https://doi.org/10.1186/s40462-018-0133-5

Black Vulture. Wikipedia. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_vulture)

Buckley, N. J., B. M. Kluever, R. Driver, and S. A. Rush (2022). Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

eBird.org. (BlackVulture (Coragyps atratus)

Howell, S. N. G., C. Corben, P. Pyle, and D. I. Rogers (2003). The first basic problem: a review of molt and plumage homologies. Condor 105: 635–653

Novaes, W. G., and R. Cintra (2015). Anthropogenic features influencing the occurrence of Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) in an urban area in central Amazonian Brazil. Condor 117:650–659.https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-15-56.1

Wallace, M. P., and S. A. Temple (1987). Competitive interactions within and between species in a guild of avian scavengers. Auk 104:290–295.