The black vulture is the most abundant vulture in the Western Hemisphere. They are large scavenger birds that live throughout the southeastern United States as well as Central and most of South America. They prefer tropical and warm temperate climates. To see this bird, head over to the Marsh Aviary in the Maryland Wilderness at the Maryland Zoo.
Black vultures are social birds that travel in large flocks. They typically breed and roost in dense woodland while feeding in open areas. They soar high in the sky, catching a ride on thermals – warm wind currents – in order to save energy, stay in the air longer, and keep scanning for food below. When black vultures spot a carcass, they often descend as a group and drive off solitary turkey vultures (their main competition for carrion). In addition to carrion, black vultures scavenge fish, vegetable material, and dung and sometimes take live prey.
The black vulture is distinctively vulturine. It is a large bird with a hooked beak. Its body is black and its head is dark grey and featherless. In the air, a black vulture can be distinguished from a turkey vulture by its flight pattern. Black vultures flap more often in flight than do turkey vultures.
Fledglings and juvenile black vultures are vulnerable to predation by a number of animals, including dogs and cats, but adults have few natural predators other than man. Historically, black vultures were shot, trapped, and poisoned in large numbers, often by ranchers and farmers concerned about livestock loss and the spread of disease at roost sites. However, black vultures are now protected by federal and state laws, including in Maryland. They are still vulnerable to accidental poisoning and death by car collision.
Black vultures are monogamous and pairs are believed to mate for life. Pairs choose a nest site together and then share the duties of incubating eggs and raising offspring. They choose nesting sites that are removed from human disturbance and often are elevated so as to be more inaccessible. They may choose the shelter of a cave or an abandoned building, or may nest in thickets, in an outcropping of rocks, on cliff edges, in the crevices of city buildings, or in the hollow of a tree or tree stump.
Black vultures do not use nesting material to build nests. Instead, females lay their eggs directly on the ground. For the next 38 days or so, the male and female take turns incubating the eggs until they hatch. At hatching, each baby vulture weighs only about 2.5 ounces, is covered in soft down with a bare face, and is completely helpless. The young will stay in the nest for several months. Even after leaving the nest, black vultures maintain strong bonds with kin.
Black vulture populations are considered stable and even growing in some places. Individual birds or flocks may be harassed or illegally killed, but as a species black vultures are not considered at risk.
All About Birds website; Animal Diversity website; Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World.