“Vultures — gross!”
That or something similar is the typical reaction to birds that I have a growing affection for. Once you get beyond their bald heads, vultures are remarkable birds with astonishing abilities and surprising social lives. And one of the great things about being interested in vultures is that — if you live in Florida — you will have lots of opportunities to to see the subject of your interest.
The vultures common to Florida are the Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture, and both birds have growing ranges. Black Vultures are rarely seen in New England, but Turkey Vultures have become common up to the Canadian border since the last part of the century.
Both the black vulture and the turkey vulture also have very similar distribution patterns and habitats. They can be found primarily in the southeastern U.S. although the turkey vulture breeds throughout much of North America during the summer and the black vulture remains in the southeastern U.S. year round.
Black vultures and turkey vultures both enjoy open areas with nearby forests for roosting and nesting, although both vultures try to avoid heavily wooded areas so that they can soar the open skies and spot lunch below. They can often be found perching on fence posts, poles, dead trees, and towers and they also enjoy spending time in grasslands and wetlands.
It’s not unusual for casual observers to confuse the black vulture and the turkey vulture, if they even know there is a difference! Both birds have a similar build and coloration and they are both found roaming the skies in open areas. But they can be identified by a few key features.
The black vulture boasts a full coat of black plumage with the only exceptions being the small patches of white feathers on the underside of its wingtips. From a distance, the turkey vulture also appears to have black feathers but they are actually a dark brown, with lighter colored feathers on the forward part of the wings to the wingtips. While the black vulture has exposed black skin on its head, the turkey vulture has a featherless red head.
Another way to tell these large raptors apart is by taking a closer look at their body sizes and flight patterns. The black vulture has a more compact body while the turkey vulture has lean and lanky build. When it comes to the black vulture, look out for strong wing beats and a steady, soaring quality to its flight. The turkey vulture, on the other hand, flies with its wings in a slight V (or dihedral) shape, creating a wobbly, circular pattern.
Black vultures and turkey vultures can be so easy to confuse because they can often be seen flying together and they can be difficult to tell apart when they are in such close proximity. In fact, black vultures have a tendency to follow turkey vultures to food in order to compensate for their poor sense of smell. Turkey Vultures, on the other hand, have a superb sense of smell among birds; although J.J. Audubon was convinced that this was not the case.
Carrion is the main food source for black vultures and turkey vultures. By consuming carrion, vultures play an important role in the ecosystem because they eliminate carcasses that can turn into breeding grounds for disease. When they live in areas that are densely populated by humans, they can also be found foraging in landfills and garbage dumps.
Even though the black vulture will follow the turkey vulture to a carcass, the black vulture will often attempt to chase the turkey vulture away from the carcass. While the turkey vulture almost exclusively feeds on carrion, the black vulture will occasionally feed on livestock. The black vulture is the only vulture to do so. They usually attack newborn calves by surrounding the calf in a large group and pecking at the calf until it goes into shock and can be killed.
In general, and in my experience, Black Vultures are more social among themselves, as well as more gregarious. I have sat down in a pasture to have a sandwich with a friend, only to be approached by a small gang of Black Vultures checking us out. I have never had Turkey Vultures be so aggressive. And when walking into a wooded area with perching Black Vultures, they will huff and bark… Turkey Vultures will just fly away.
Vultures have been the focus of mythology and folklore since antiquity throughout many cultures. Many have heard of Dr. Buzzard in the low country’s Gullah tradition, and in Brazilian mythology, the vulture god Urubutsin is considered the king of all birds who once owned all of the light in the world.
Beyond that, In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Nekhbet takes the form of a vulture. She was often depicted hovering over the pharaoh as his patron and was often considered to be the mother of the pharaoh’s divine nature. She also appeared frequently on the burial headdresses of king. Although she was originally the patron goddess of the city of Nekhbet, she eventually became one of the two major patron deities for all of ancient Egypt. A shrine dedicated to Nekhbet was discovered to be the oldest oracle in Egypt and her priestesses wore robes decorated with vulture feathers.
Vultures also figure prominently in the tale of the titan Prometheus. There, a vulture is chosen to deliver eternal punishment. When Prometheus is given the task of creating mankind, he falls in love with his creations and wishes to provide for them but Zeus did not see the value in giving humankind luxuries such as fire. Prometheus decides to steal fire from the gods and give it to humanity. When Zeus discovers this, he is furious and sentences Prometheus to spend the rest of eternity chained to a rock. Every day, a vulture appears to eat his liver, which regenerates overnight to be eaten by the vulture again the next day.
In addition to myths and legends, the vulture can symbolize a calculated approach to life and the importance of thinking before acting. And consider their behavior: they soar in the sky for hours in order to find the right meal, which most other animals would ignore in favor of fresh kills. This calls for patience, resourcefulness and unconventional methods.
Vultures can also symbolize loyalty due to their social natures. When vultures appear in dreams, they symbolize insight and purification. If the dreamer is facing a difficult situation or decision, dreaming about a vulture can mean their past experiences will shed light on their current dilemma. Vultures in dreams can also indicate that someone might be watching the dreamer and waiting for them to slip up so that they can swoop in and take advantage of the situation, much like the black vulture does when it trails after the turkey vulture.