Q: How can we quickly tell a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) from a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) in the field?
Other than the obvious head coloration differences (which you may / may not be able to spot when in the field) Turkey Vultures have a light underside to their flight feathers, giving them a two-toned appearance across their wings. Black Vultures have white shafts on their outer six primaries and white patches or ‘stars’, so their two-toned appearance is limited to the wing tip region.
2. Wing Shape
The Turkey Vulture has a greater dihedral angle (angle of the wings angled above horizontal) when compared to the Black Vulture’s soaring on horizontal (or slightly above horizontal) wings. Of course, if you happen to be watching a mixed group of vultures you can also make an easy ID just by noticing the larger wingspan of the Turkey Vulture.
3. Tail Shape
Turkey Vultures have a long, rudder-like, round tail that extends well past their toes while in flight. Black Vultures have short bluntly rounded tails that hardly extend past their toes.
4. Flying Style
Because Turkey Vultures are so light (64oz average with a 5 1/2 ft wingspan) so they can soar the thermals for extended periods of time with little to no flapping. When wing flapping is required, the wingbeats are measured and deep. (ex. Flap———— Flap ———— Flap———-) Being a (relative) lightweight isn’t all grace, these guys have a characteristic rocking motion to their soar as they get buffeted by thermal currents.
Black vultures have a shorter wingspan and are heavier birds (68 oz average with a wingspan just shy of 5ft) so their wingload is higher and they rely on strong high thermals to stay aloft. They have shallow almost frantic wing beats in three to five rapid clusters. (Flap-Flap-Flap———- Flap-Flap-Flap-Flap———)
Bonus points go out to hyaenabee, ktsaurusr3x, primestigma, nomchimpsky for their excellent answers.
Pun points to arrowsforpens because I really wish it was simply a difference of a pinion.
Read more about vultures here, here, here, and here!
And here’s a turkey vulture with all its soft tissue removed. These don’t fly very well but you can see the “tubercles” on the ulna. These defined bumps are where the bird’s large primary feathers attach.
Bonus photo: Here’s a comparison of a turkey vulture ulna with that of a velociraptor, each showing evidence of the same anatomical feature.
Picture credit: Mick Ellison
Image above caption:
(A) View of right ulna of Velociraptor (fossil reference: IGM 100/981).
(B) Detail from cast of red box in (A), with arrows showing six evenly spaced feather quill knobs.
(C) View of right ulna of a turkey vulture (Cathartes).
(D) Same view of Cathartes as in (C) but with soft tissue dissected to reveal placement of the secondary feathers relative to the quill knobs.
(E) Detail of Cathartes, with one quill completely removed to reveal quill knob.
(F) Same view as in (E) but with quill moved to the left to show placement of quill, knob, and follicular ligament. Follicular ligament indicated with arrow.