Sunday, January 30, 2011


The southern third of Ohio is a unique location when it comes to vultures, as we can boast being home to two species of North American vultures - the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture (TUVU and BLVU for short). We are at the very northern-most edge of the Black Vulture's range, and while Turkey Vultures are common breeders throughout Ohio, wintering TUVUs are most frequently found on the lower third of the state.

I knew that a predictable location to find Black Vultures was at the lodge in Hocking Hills State Park, but I had never noticed them in Athens County until a little over a month ago.

Would it freak you out to see this sight in your neighborhood?

As I was driving in to work one snowy morning in December, I noticed some vultures at a deer carcass alongside the road. It took another day or two for me to realize that they were BLACK Vultures, and that there was not one carcass, but two - one on each side of the road. They feasted on the two carcasses for quite a few days, and I thought they might disperse once they were finished with them.

Insert your best Lurch "You rang?" imitation here.

Well, they stayed even after they picked those deer bones clean. Some days I can drive by the spot and see nary a vulture, but other days they look like they are thinking of taking over the neighborhood. I don't know what folks who live on this street think about the vultures choosing this as a roosting and congregating area, but I imagine they are not too pleased with it.

Unfortunately, vultures get a bad rap for their seemingly filthy habit of eating carrion (somebody has to pick up the garbage, though, right?), and in the case of Black Vultures, they are not liked by farmers as they have been known to pick off newborn calves, lambs, and pigs (although information from the Birds of North American Online website suggests that they eat live prey only "occasionally.")

I try to appreciate all birds for their unique characteristics, but will admit that I'm more drawn to those who fall into the "cute" category. Neither the Turkey Vulture nor the Black Vulture really fall into that category for me. Especially when I see them lined up on the roof of someone's house, or the fence surrounding someone's swimming pool - then they start to look a little... creepy (sorry!).

The main house these Black Vultures have chosen to congregate on is currently unoccupied. I'm not sure if it's on the market right now or not (I haven't seen a "for sale" sign in the yard for many months), but if it is, this could definitely have a negative effect on the property value!

As evening sets in, these Black Vultures almost appear to be saluting the sun.

Another thing going against them is a problem that you have with any bird: whitewash. Of course, that's just a colloquial way of saying "That bird done pooped all over my roof/car/insert other personal object here!" The larger the bird, the larger the excrement. And never mind if you are one of the birds who happens to be roosting below someone else who has to go.

Whitewash, on wings. It took me a few minutes to figure out that this was poo and not some kind of variation in plumage.

Whitewash, on roof. Nothing says "Welcome to the neighborhood!" like a poopy roof!

Across the road from this house there's a large tree that's also acting as a roosting area, and it's been host to both Black AND Turkey Vultures.

In fact, while I was out taking these pictures, the Turkey Vultures started circling overhead.

Turkey Vulture overhead in flight

I wish that I had a similar photo of the Black Vulture in flight to show for comparison, but right now I don't. The silvery-white all along the length of the wing (as well as in the tail) when seen from below is a key field mark when telling TUVUs apart from BLVUs. Black Vultures have white-ish coloring only at the very tips of their wings, which is illustrated in this BLVU that is taking flight:

Interestingly, Black Vultures are quite dependent on Turkey Vultures. TUVUs are well known for their keen sense of smell, but this is a trait not shared by the Black Vulture. Thus, BLVUs rely on TUVUs to find the carrion, and then they will muscle their way in and take over the carcass. Black Vultures fly higher in the sky than Turkey Vultures so that they can keep track of where the TUVUs are and follow them quickly to a food source. When examining range maps of the two species, it is obvious that the Black Vultures only live in areas where Turkey Vultures also exhibit a year-round presence.

I will be interested to observe how long the Black Vultures stay around this part of town. There is another well-known part of town where vultures (probably both species) stage spectacular flights in the morning and in the evening, but I haven't seen the birds in that area for a while. Yet one more item to put on my radar for "further observation."

A mixed group of vultures soaring in the evening sky.


KaHolly said...

All I can say is, "Wow!"! ~karen

Beyond My Garden said...

Interesting. I am drawn to turkey vultures and am glad that they can clean up a fallen deer in the field in 24 hours taking the stink with them. We think that my husband saw a black vulture in my garden twice, but other than that we have never seen any here about 45 minutes east of Athens. I don't particularly want them after reading a few frightening reports from eastern West Virginia farmers. Thanks for showing us the difference in the open wings.

Caroline said...

Um, is this what Harry Potter fans would consider a collection of Death Eaters, do you suppose?

It might creep the neighborhood right out.

A favorite vulture roost here in Rapid City is in a grove of poplar trees adjacent to the parking lot of one of the fancier restaurants in the area. How good is that for business?

Judy said...

Interesting post! I especially like the photo of the flying vulture with the sun shining through his wings!! Seeing all the vultures on the one house makes me think they need to send in the CSI teams to see what died in there. Likely they are simply roosting on the roof, but still...

Meg said...

Fascinating. I did not know about black vultures. It was turkey vultures who flushed from behind the hay bales and sent me flying off of Savvy that fateful day...ergh! Hope you are well, Heather. I owe you an email : )

Red said...

Interesting to see so many vultures in one group. Here in Alberta they breed and are spread very widely.
Great photos and info.

Monika said...

What an impressive sight! We have turkey vultures seasonally here but I would love to see black vultures. I'll admit, some of those photos do look a little like something out of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds". Amazing to see so many, especially right on a house!

Susan Gets Native said...

This was a lovely post, Heather. (Why did it take me so long to get over here and read your blog???)
Vultures of any kind are fascinating and necessary. Like you said, someone's gotta do it.
And while the roof in question doesn't look all that pretty, maybe the future homeowners will be pleased to know that vulture poop is loaded with sanitizers?
In fact, that roof is the 'cleanest' in the neighborhood.

Heather said...

Karen - Thanks!

Nellie - I don't think the Black Vultures are too common in your part of West Virginia (at least not from what the maps show), but I suppose a flyover is not out of the question.

Caroline - That's funny about the vultures near the fancy restaurant. Wonder if they can work them into their marketing plan somehow?!

Judy - The vultures ARE the CSI team!

Meg - Hmmm... so you don't have good memories of the vultures then, and poor Savvy certainly doesn't, either.

Red - Yes, it's pretty common to see them in such large groups in these parts.

Monika - Come on out east! Then you can see Turkey Vultures and Cardinals!!

Susan - Hello and welcome! Hmm, maybe the realtor could use the fact that the roof is sanitized as a selling point? Ha ha! Hey, see you at New River!

Julie Zickefoose said...

Holy moly what a post and what pictures!
Bird lover that I am, vulture devotee, even, I have to say I would be less than delighted to have my house become a roost for BlVU's. It would be keen for oh maybe a week, and then the O'Poopy Factor would drive me nuts. Maybe I should rethink this invasion...

Kathi said...

Lynne will FAINT when she sees this post!

Mary said...

Holy Moly is right! Awesome pictures, Heather, and look at that poop... It was common to see two dozen TVs sitting on rooftops in my neighborhood in Delaware and when I saw 10 on my own roof one morning, I sat in the car for a while and watched them. A little late for work but hey...

Now I'm ready for another look at this great post.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Wheeee! Loving this here Vulture post. I would be thrilled to see a vulture on my front steps! Not so sure about all the poo, but...
I'm so looking forwad to the return of our Turkey Vultures to Minnesota. Black Vulture are rare here.