A Peek at the Private Family Life of the Black Vulture

black vulture family life
cuatrok77/Flickr/CC by 2.0

As common as it is there is not a lot of information about the family life or breeding biology of the Black Vulture a.k.a. American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus). Black Vulture’s nests, eggs, and chicks are well known, but most of this information comes from a relatively small number of nests.

Black Vultures have a discreet and reclusive family life. This article goes over some interesting facts about the way Black Vultures find a mate, select a nest site, incubate the eggs. It also goes over the appearance of the egg, chicks, and the development of the young vultures.

Do Black Vultures mate for life?

Yes, Black Vultures mate for life but will re-mate with another individual if one member of the pair dies.

Mating for life appears not to be an absolute arrangement among birds thought to mate for life. Bird studies of paired birds in long-term relationships showed that some pairs split for no apparent reason. As if both members of the pair part ways in a friendly and civilized way.

While Black Vultures are thought to mate for life, friendly pair splits may also occur among Black Vultures as well.

Mated vulture pairs stay together, or in the same flock and in the general area during the breeding season and outside the breeding season. Perching together, roosting in close proximity, and flying together is often an indication that those two birds are part of a mated pair.


Mating of Black Vultures is an event rarely seen in nature.

What do they do to find a mate?

Apart from the general conditions, such as being in good health conditions and having an “acceptable status” in the flock, it is difficult to tell the fine-grain features that vultures use as cues to find a mate.

First-time pair formation and getting ready for the breeding season among mated pairs involves several courtships displays including:

  • Aerial chases, which consists of one bird, the male, diving at the prospective female. This behavior is perhaps the most easily observed. While in flight, the male gains a higher altitude than the prospective female. Then, he dives at her and she dives away resulting in a fast descending chase downwards that can last 3 to 4 seconds.
  • Circling Display, which consists of the male circling a standing female with its neck stretched out forward as he emits hissing sounds.
  • Open wing facing, which consists of the pair facing each other with their open wings as they bob their heads up and down.

The success of this display behavior is generally conducive to a pair formation or reinforce an existing relationship as a prelude to start breeding.

How can one tell a male from a female Black Vulture?

You can’t. The Black Vulture is a monomorphic species, which means that there is no difference in appearance between males and females.

Both sexes are uniformly black. Adult and fully-grown immature birds measure about:

  • 25” from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail,
  • 59” of wingspan, or length between the tips of the spread wings, and
  • weigh about 4.4 lb (2,000 grams).

Where do Black Vultures nest?

They nest in a variety of secluded places most of which have in common resembling a small cave. The majority of nests are placed on the ground under thickets.

Other nests are placed in rock crevices, underbrush piles, under fallen tree trunks, abandoned buildings, or other places that have a cave-like appearance.

The nesting pair assesses the safety of the nesting for a period of 4 to 6 weeks prior to committing to a nest site. Both birds spend hours perched together near the prospective nest site apparently checking for the traffic of possible predators and other risks to the eggs and chicks.

Ground nesting birds, in general, are at higher risk of predation than birds that nest off the ground.

How many eggs do Black Vultures lay?

They normally lay two eggs on a small depression on the ground or other surface, without an actual nest. In rare occasions, they lay 3 eggs or a single egg per nest.

Eggs are laid either in two consecutive days or two to three days apart.

How long does it take an egg to hatch?

The eggs normally hatch in 38.5 days with a span of 38 to 39 days. The chicks usually hatch one or two days apart depending on when vultures start incubating the eggs.

Black vultures sometimes begin incubating the eggs as soon as she lays the first egg. Other times she waits until the second egg is laid to start incubating the eggs.

The initiation of incubation of the eggs makes a difference in the time it takes for each egg to hatch.

Both parents share the incubation duties nearly equally with multiple changeovers during the day.

What does a Black Vulture egg and chicks look like?

While the egg color and pattern may differ geographically, the appearance of young Black Vultures is consistently similar.

egg of a black vulture

The egg of a Black Vulture is pale bluish or pale greenish with brown spots. The size and density of brown spots on the eggshell vary geographically. However, the wider side of the egg consistently appears to show a higher concentration of brown spots.


chick black vulture

Newly hatched Black Vultures have a coat of dense beige or light brown down. They hatch with their eyes open. The eyes are dark with the skin on their face and the bill being black in color. This baby vulture is about 15 days old.


juvenile_black-vulture

By the 17th day after hatching feathers begin to grow under the coat of down. Feathers are not noticed until the young bird is about 30-35 days old when some of the down begins to fall off. This young vulture is about 60 days old.


Not many people have seen an actual egg and chick Black vulture because nests are well hidden. The parents do not give away many leads towards the location of the nest.

Ornithologists purposely studying the nesting biology of Black Vultures know the clues that reveal the birds have a nest at a location nearby.

RelatedVultures in North, Central, and South America

How long it takes a baby vulture from the time of egg-laying to fledging?

On their studies on Black Vulture development, ornithologists Thomas (1928) and Mchargue (1981) determined that it takes approximately 79 days from the time an egg is laid to the time a young vulture takes its first flight.

The approximate sequence is as follows:

  • Egg-laying to hatching (incubation period): Approximately 38.5 days.
  • Feathers begin to appear: 17-23 days.
  • Young fully feathered: 65 days.
  • First flight: Between 75-80 days of age.

Because the eggs hatch at different days, one chick is generally larger than the other. This difference in size and development results in one chick attaining each milestone earlier than the other.

In about a month after hatching the young vultures begin to take steps at or near the nest.

Once they fledge the nest, young vultures remain in the vicinity of the nest location for approximately 10 days performing practice flights.

After the flying muscles are ready and they have acquired some experience the family unit moves on to look for food away from the nest site.


Adult Black Vulture feeding young.


What are baby black vultures fed?

Newly hatched young vultures are fed pre-digested liquid food. Both parents will make a special liquid food from the food they normally eat.

At a feeding visit, one of the parents reaches the bill of a young vulture, which reacts to the stimulus by raising its head up so that the flow of liquid from the parent to the chick begins.

After only 15 days, the food type goes from liquid to semi-solid. As the chicks get older the parents bring solid food in their crops and deliver it to the chicks in the nest directly bill to bill.

Food delivery, during approximately the first 10 days happens at a frequency of approximately 15 to 20 times per day. As the chicks get older, the feeding frequency diminishes to a point that is only 2-4 times per day and consists of solid food.

Final Remarks

Black Vultures are remarkable birds with a very important role in nature; they promptly get rid of dead animals that may smell for weeks and help reduce the spread of diseases.

Knowing some of the interesting facts about their family lives brought up in this article may help to understand them a little better.

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.
  • Allaboutbird

31 thoughts on “A Peek at the Private Family Life of the Black Vulture”

  1. In 2016, a pair of black vultures appeared in the atrium of our elementary school, and the female laid her eggs here. They have returned every year since then. It has been a fascinating experience for the students. I have done a lot of research on these fascinating birds and have learned a lot through observation. Last year we were able to observe one of the chicks hatching. She always lays her eggs right next to one of the windows. This year, we had a horrible polar vortex come through. It is the first year that she has only laid one egg. I know that they can lay 1 or 3 eggs, however I am just wondering if the weather might have had something to do with her only laying one egg this year.
    Allison Wheeler
    Houston, Texas

    1. Joanne B Little

      I live in Magnolia, TX. I had a pair that ended up in my yard 5 yrs. ago because 1 was injured. I fed them everyday and they decided to stay here in “their” garage. Last year they left and 1 yr old came back to nest. usually they don’t successfully breed til 2 yrs. old. They laid 2 eggs. a week before freeze. The eggs and parents are still there as of yesterday. i will let you know if they hatch. Usually in 40 days. I don’t think cold weather effected egg count if before freeze. Bless you for caring for them. You truly are an Angel. Most reports say they only hiss. But I have heard them vocalizing toeach other and the eggs and babies. It sounds just like people cooing to sooth there babies. Just walk near their nest near evening or early morning when both there. then walk away and wait. It sounds like 2 parents discussing if the babies are ok. And then they cooing/humming to eggs to reassure them.

      1. Hi Joanne, what a great story. Yes, vultures are truly amazing. They happen to eat carrion, and that is a curse and blessing. People associate them with dead and smelly animals. The blessing comes from getting rid of precisely dead animals that otherwise could mean harm to other animals and humans.

        I’d love to hear about what the vultures at your house do!

    2. Hi Allison,
      Great to hear that you guys enjoy the wonders of birds; vultures in this case.

      Vultures are indeed amazing. We plan on writing more about vultures of the new world (the Americas).

      Regarding your question about the female laying only one egg, it could be related. Any source of stress will make birds react differently. The unusual cold front in Texas may have caused stress and trigger a hormone suppression that resulted in the female stopping laying additional eggs.

      It’d be interesting to know if she stopped laying eggs or will continue laying the rest when conditions improve. If she stopped now, I guess that would be it for the season…but I would like to know if you continue monitoring the nest. Please keep us posted!

      Regards,

    3. T. David Pitts

      Allison,
      Some observers have reported that Black Vultures place their eggs on top of their feet during incubation. Have you seen this behavior?

      Thanks,
      David Pitts

    4. I’m so glad to have found this site! For the past 5-6 years a pair of Black Vultures have nested in an old barn loft of the hay farm next door. They began coming to our home I think because of the ravens that I’d put raw eggs out for. After a year they became near daily visitors and will actually allow me to get within 3 or so feet of them. They tolerate my 2 dogs and 2 cats but don’t seem comfortable with my husband being close by. This year for the first time they brought along their one fledgling. We put out chicken parts, especially during the covid pandemic when there were so few roadkills. We hung a ribbon with bells on the back door and they announce themselves by either ringing them or pecking at the glass door. I have so many short videos and photos that I’d love to share should anyone know how I might do that. Today it seems that just the adults are visiting, makes me hope their “little” one is OK.

      Marjory Greenberg-Vaughn
      Saugerties, NY

  2. I am delighted to find a story, recently published, about Black Vultures! Good information and narratives are difficult to find. Last year, a bonded adult pair used my old barn as a breeding site and successfully raised one fledgling. The second egg did not hatch. The adults used one of the decks on my home to raise quite a noisy commotion for two days to lure the baby from the barn. Then, that deck was a home base from July through October. In the first weeks of the fledgling being out in the world, the parents would leave the baby on my deck while they went off to feed. Yes, seems I was the Vulture-Sitter! This week, the adults returned to the barn! I can only hope they choose it again, as seems likely, for breeding. I hope it’s ok to include my blog with a post I created after their visit this week: https://www.sandyobodzinski.com/post/brown-eyed-girl-and-her-mate

    I look forward to reading more about Black Vultures here in the future! Thank you!

    1. Sandy, we have had black vultures nesting in a dark grain room in our mostly unused barn for at least 10 years. From other information it sounds like they generally do return to a nest for many years if it is suitable. I think they have nested successfully all or most years, though I only started monitoring in 2020, when they successfully raised 2 chicks. Don’t know if it is the same pair, or perhaps another generation at this point (wish I knew how to identify individuals). This year the first egg was laid around March 7, with a total of two eggs now (in central Maryland, for weather comparison). It is so wonderful to observe them, though we try to only get close infrequently. In case of interest to you, we have used the NestWatch app, from Cornell Lab, to record nesting activity for the black vultures. May provide useful information for ornithologists.

  3. Hello Sandy, great story about black vultures nesting in your barn, and nice pictures too! No problem about including your link. I went to it right away.

    I hope the pair that just returned nest in your barn again. This is the time when they start scoping potential nesting sites.

    Keep us posted!

  4. Cheri Charter

    I thoroughly enjoyed the information in this article. Thank you for sharing. As of today we have 2 eggs in our barn again. Almost a year to the day apart. We had just bought the property last year at this time and found the eggs, to our surprise, in an old grain bin. We enjoyed watching them grow. It is indeed the same pair, at least one of them is. It has a very distinct permanent limp so we know it is the same one. We closed access to the old grain bin in hopes that possibly they would find a new nesting location altogether. But no. They just decided to lay the eggs behind the grain bin. Not as protected but still out of most harms way. Guess we will get to watch them raise more babies. I actually have Video of their mating ritual. So it didn’t surprise me that they are back here with a couple more babies on the way.

    1. Hi Cheri,

      Glad to hear about your vultures nesting in the barn. If they that spot safe and are successful raising young vultures there, they are likely to return every year.

      I hope they do!

  5. Several years ago I accidentally found a pair of young chicks in a falling down shed in my back yard. Last year the eggs disappeared. Today I found Mom? with 2 eggs. I am so worried that the falling down shed is on it’s last legs and could fall on them! I love having them here, but would hate for them to get hurt.

    1. Hi Vicki,

      Don’t worry too much about the shed falling. I am sure that nesting spot is safer than nesting in the wild where they are exposed to many predators that can eat their eggs and chicks. They chose that spot for a reason!

      Regards,

  6. Thank you for your great article. It is hard to find information on black vultures! We have an old barn with rafters and some planks across the rafters to make a partial floor in the loft. Below is an area walled off into a room on the ground level. We have discovered a vulture nesting in this room area with an egg. I can’t understand how they can get in and out. There is an old stove they could hop on, but then they still have to get up to the rafters, about 7 feet from floor to ceiling. The stove is about 3 feet high. I’m also concerned the chicks won’t be able to get out. I would very much appreciate knowing what you think.

    1. Hi Patti, and sorry for the delay in responding.

      Don’t worry about the chick not being able to get out. If the parents can get in and out with no problem, they will lead the chick through the same route when it is ready to leave.

      If you notice that the chick can’t get out, you could perhaps open a door or window to let the young vulture out. My guess is that it will not have any problem following its parents along the access route they normally use.

      Regards,

      Regards,

  7. Minton Newman

    We had a pair of vultures nest on the ground under some fallen tree trunks in a back corner of our brick walled back courtyard this spring. Two eggs hatched two chicks. The parents shared the nest sitting & feeding. But with the recent heavy rains in San Antonio may have lead to the demise of our chicks. We haven’t seen them in a couple weeks. But the parents still hang around like before. Would the parents have moved the nest if the original location proved too wet or if it flooded? Or the chicks may have drowned, or got sick & died, or been lost to some predator; and the parents are hanging around searching for the chicks.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Hello Minton,

      If you still see the parents then it is quite likely that chicks are still there somewhere.

      I would not know what happened during the heavy rain in the San Antonio area and how old where the chicks when the series of heavy rainfall happened. If the chicks were older than a week or two and their nest got moderately flooded, they might have walked away from the nest to where there was no water; slightly higher grounds. They may still be there and the parents continue feeding them at the new place away from the nest. If the parents are still in the area, this is more likely to be the case. Vultures or any other birds move on and leave the area when they realize that the nesting attempt failed.

      Another possibility is that the chicks drowned and the parents started a new nesting attempt. If this is the case though, you would mostly see one bird at a time because the other is incubating.

      I am more inclined to think that the chicks are still somewhere there and the parents continue feeding them; I certainly hope this is the case.

      Thank you for visiting Avian Report.

  8. Eugenia Jaffe

    A pair of black vultures showed up on my balcony during a terrible storm. They would sit in two big blue pots and continued to come every day. My son and I heard them making very sweet bird calls . One day one of the pair remained sitting in the pot all day. We saw that she laid an egg in the evening. Next day we saw a second egg. She laid those eggs on the 26 th and 27th of May. We were wondering why we didn’t see the pair sitting on the pots anymore, but after reading your article we understood that the pair are taking turns taking care of the eggs. The eggs are rarely left alone, when they are left alone the parent flies to a telephone pole that is nearby and in very close range from the nest., there it takes a break often stretching its wings . We check on them everyday and hope that all goes well for this family. We love being able to watch them!

    1. Great, I would love to have something like that at home. I am sure it is going to be a joy watching them hatch, grow, and fledge soon.

      I am glad you enjoy your vultures. They are really amazing.

      Regards,

  9. It is so awesome to find info on vultures! We’ve had a pair that have been living in an old chicken coop no longer used because currently we have no chickens. It has the cave like characteristics, no windows and only a small door which stays open. Over grown with trees, and dark, it has proven to be ideal for them. They’ve been noticeably present for over two years now. They sit and watch us whatever we are doing outdoors. Yesterday, I noticed them standing in top of the coop spreading their wings out wide and holding them out like that. Then I saw that there were three of them, one a bit smaller. I’m thinking it’s a baby that has feathered out and accompanying them. It’s amazing! Not knowing they had laid or anything, we at first thought they were spreading their wings like that because there may be a snake or something that they see? But then we saw a third vulture, and figured it was their baby. They do their thing. We so ours. We are in the process of clearing trees and overgrowth, but we will leave that corner as it is, just for their little family. 😁 They arent afraid of us mowing and chainsaws whirring, nor does the burn pile approximately 80 feet from their home bother them. It’s just cool how we can share our habitat. But, if I repopulate my chickens one day, for eggs, what should I expect? Will they attack the chickens who will be free range? We’ve had a few yard kittens come up missing over the past three years. But then, I did run a bobcat off around that time, so, who knows? Living out in the country is awesome though. Truly.

    1. Hi Karen, sorry about taking so long to reply.

      Nice to hear that you are happy to share your property with the vultures. Some people scare them away due to the vultures’ reputation of eating dead animals.

      Don’t worry about the vultures if you bring chickens. Vultures nest in cave-like areas free of disturbances. Once the chickens are around they will abandon that nesting spot and look for another one.

      Please make sure that they are not incubating or have chicks in the chicken coop before you bring the chickens. If they have eggs or nestlings, the parent vultures would become defensive and may even attack the chicken to defend their eggs or nestlings.

      Black vultures are actually rather shy.

      Regards,

  10. We moved into our house in March. We have an old, dilapidated barn on our land. Upon venturing into it, a black vulture flew up to the rafters (out of an old horse stall). She then flew to a nearby tree. We found two eggs in the corner. So we shut the door of the stall and left her and the eggs alone. Since then, I have visited the barn once a week, or every two weeks. One egg did not hatch. However, we do have one baby. Every time I go in, mom flies at me, then up to the tree close by. The baby is still yellow in color and just breathes loudly, (sounds like a demon!)
    Last night I went in and mom was no where around! That’s the first time I didn’t see her. I didn’t have a good light at the time, but the “nest” has always been just dirt. The baby appears to be sitting on something black. I hope it’s not the mom! Would that be the case if she died? I’m worried something happened to her. The baby is about two months old. I’ll check again today. But should I just leave them alone? How will the baby get food if something did happen? Do I let nature take its course or try to throw some food in there? If so, what food? Thanks! (Hopefully you can see the pic)
    file:///var/mobile/Library/SMS/Attachments/78/08/88ECC908-45D6-4C5F-B1BF-1A8151030259/FullSizeRender.jpeg

    1. Hi Nicki, baby vultures hiss at you as a defense mechanism. It works! as you describe the hissing as sounding like a “demon sound” 🙂

      The fact the parents are not around as much as they used to is perfectly normal. As the baby vultures grow, the parents leave them for longer periods of time as they often need to find more food for the growing nestlings. When the nestlings are older, their parents will often leave for half or most of the day; that is normal too.

      Do not worry about the baby black vulture being hungry. Its parents are feeding it.

      I saw your pics on Facebook. Thank you for sharing.

  11. We live east of Dallas Texas. We have a nice large metal six stall barn. Last year, a pair of black cultures chose our barn for their nesting site. The first year appeared to be a “wedding”, as we observed several males courting our bride. She finally chose one gentleman (or he drove off the others)!
    We don’t think they had a successful hatching last year, but they stayed in and around the barn throughout the year, sometimes roasting on the top of the tack room, under the rafters. This spring, they laid 2 eggs on the dirt floor of one of the stalls. We use some of the stalls for storage, including the one they played in. 2 chicks hatched in mid-late March, meaning the eggs were laid about the time of the ” Big Freeze”.
    One chick was much larger than the other and the smaller one didn’t survive. It appeared that the parents allowed the larger chick to feed more, or it was more aggressive at feeding time. We tried to check on them every day and the parents were, and still are, very tolerant of our comings and goings in the barn. The chick also became very used to us. It has now fledged and last week the parents began bringing it out for flight training.
    My husband calls them our “renters”, and they keep our small ranch free of dead pests, e.g. skunks, snakes, etc…
    It has been wonderful to have them with us, although they are a bit messy in the barn, especially the nesting stall. Do you think that it would be okay to go into the nesting stall after baby has left for the rest of the summer, remove our boxes and clean up the area? The actual nest is in a corner of the 10 x 10 stall and not under any of our belongings.

    1. Hi Gaby,

      Great story. Yes vultures are great, but often under appreciated.

      It would be just fine going into the stall and do what you need to do after the chicks have left. If things do not change too much, structurally, the adults will return to nest at the same spot.

      Thank you for your consideration of the welfare of nesting birds!

      Al

  12. Duane Schmidt

    Update on our black vultures’ 2021 nesting attempts. (See earlier comment for general info.) First attempt was two eggs laid in early March, but those failed to hatch. Around 60 days after they had been laid, they disappeared one at a time. A few days later I spotted the pair of adults in the barn near where they nest – I assume getting ready for nesting. By May 23, two new eggs had been laid. One hatched perhaps on July 1 (one chick present on July 2 observation) and the second soon after (both chicks present on July 7). I did not know black vultures would do a second nesting attempt. The chicks are about 3 months behind where they would otherwise be but hopefully they will be plenty mature by winter. They are very interesting birds and we are glad they keep returning.

  13. Hi Duane,

    Glad to hear that your vultures were successful at raising a brood this year!

    Large birds that have only one brood per nesting season generally attempt another brood if they lose their eggs early in the nesting season. In your case though your vultures’ egg did not hatch and took 60 days! yet they did it again.

    In northerns states where the summer is relatively short, perhaps this would not have happened. Perhaps where you live, weather conditions are not as limiting and they can have a second attempt. For instance, in the tropical region, where the weather is warm throughout the year birds nest year round.

    Thank you for the update.

    Al

  14. Katherine Valentine

    Hello, My husband services ships and came home with what I believe is a fledging. It is feathered out in the wings with down along its head and neck. The crew were going to toss it overboard so he brought it home. What is the best way to find a rehab organization? Will a solitary fledging unite with a flock ? I am in the SouthEast.

  15. Hi Katherine,

    Glad to hear that your husband did that!

    Google “Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers in my area.” That search should give several leads.

    About a solitary chick being able to join a flock…that is not a problem. Vultures need to form flocks to help each other find food.

    I hope you find help for the baby vulture.

    Regards,

    Al

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