Vultures In Florida

Shannon Ruby

A Turkey Vulture flies effortlessly overhead.






Shannon L. Ruby is the Natural Resources/Agriculture Agent with the University of Florida/IFAS and Lee County Extension Service. To submit questions, call 461-7515 between 9am and 4pm or send questions to 3406 Palm Beach Blvd. Fort Myers, FL 33916-3736 or via e-mail at



Question: I understand there are different types of vultures in Florida. Could you tell me the differences for identifying these birds? 

Answer: There are two distinct types of vultures in Florida. The black vulture, Coragyps atratus, tends to be a bit smaller than the turkey vulture, Cathartes aura. Both, however, are often called buzzards or carrion crows but are not related to either family. Both are found statewide, share similar habitats, diets, behaviors, and create similar problems for people. The black vulture and turkey vulture are protected by Federal law and cannot be killed without proper permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The major differences in these two birds are their appearance. The black vulture is approximately twenty-two inches in height and weighs 3.8 to 5.1 pounds. Its wingspan is approximately fifty-four inches and the bird is a dull black. It can be distinguished by wrinkles that cover the head and face, it has white tips on the each wing, the tips of their bills are grayish in color, the legs are a whitish color, have rounded tails, and their feet extend past their tails during flight.

The turkey vulture is approximately twenty-five inches tall and weighs from 3.5 to 5.3 pounds. The wingspan is larger than its counterpart at seventy-two inches. This bird is blackish brown and has its own distinguishing features. The turkey vulture has a red head and legs, the tips of the bills are white, and the undersides of their wings are lined in gray. In flight, their tails extend past their legs, just the opposite of the black vulture.

Both vultures live in landfills, pastures, or wherever they can find sources of carrion (dead or decaying flesh). They will occasionally eat vegetable and plant matter or prey upon young, sick, or weak animals but carrion is their main diet. One difference between the diets is that turkey vultures have a well-developed sense of smell to help them find new sources of carrion. The black vulture will typically return to dependable food sources rather than seeking out new ones. Vultures are highly gregarious (social), fly in small groups to food sources and breed annually with the same mate. Eggs are laid on the ground in a dense thicket, scrub area, hollow log, cave, or old building. The black vulture will lay one to four egg clutches from February to June. Its eggs hatch in thirty-five to forty days with a nestling period of seventy to one hundred days. The turkey vulture also lays one to four clutches of eggs, but does so from March to July. The eggs hatch in thirty-five to forty days, but the nestling period is only fifty-five to ninety days.

Vultures are communal roosters and have two interesting (if I may say) habits. Vultures defecate on their legs to keep cool, why do it if it doesn’t work? Also, when threatened with attack, vultures disgorge their stomach contents. I guess now we know why the mention of the word vulture conjures up such ill feelings. Horror movies and Disney cartoons also portray vultures in a negative light, inhabiting dark, deserted, desolate places. Historically, vultures have had cultural importance. They were once thought of a spiritual messengers (sometimes gods) and symbols of strength. They still are important as natural garbage disposals that eliminate costly cleanup of our roads and pastures.

Today we think of vultures as scavengers of road kill and often a nuisance. Vultures can damage window caulking, asphalt roof shingles, vinyl seat covers from boats, tractors, and cars. They damage swimming pool covers and enclosures, boat canopies, and plastic flowers at cemeteries. Their feces can deface and damage roofs, electrical transmission towers, and other perching structures. Vultures may also kill calves and other newborn livestock. As stated earlier, Federal law protects vultures so the best ways to solve vulture problems is by excluding them from areas or by using repellents. There are legal aspects to trapping and shooting so think before you act.



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