Against a bright blue sky, you might not notice the difference, or think to look. A dark shape, a quick stroke of a painter’s brush, turning and wheeling on a thermal, then two or three. A turkey vulture, right?
Until recently, that was a safe bet. But beginning in the 1980s, and increasingly ever since, there’s a chance it’s a black vulture. From a distance, it is easy to mistake one for another. But black vultures are quite a bit different from turkey vultures: more aggressive, but also more sociable, curious, mischievous and tolerant of people.
Black vultures are the most numerous vulture in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from most of South America through Central America to the Southern and Northeastern US. They’re most common in the southern part of their range, gradually giving way to turkey vultures in the north.
The first recorded black vulture in New York State was spotted by Dan Smiley near the gate to Minnewaska State Park on November 1, 1981. Sixteen years later, the first nest was found by Joe Bridges, a research associate with the Mohonk Preserve, who happened to be climbing on the eastern side of Bonticou Crag.
“I saw a black vulture sitting on a rock at ground level and I thought it was curious,” he remembers. “It was very approachable, which I thought was even more curious. It stayed about 10 feet away from me. And shortly after that, I looked at a hole between two rocks and saw another black vulture. And that one moved back in a few minutes, and I saw two eggs on the ground.” He didn’t realize it at the time, but he’d just observed the first breeding pair of black vultures in New York State.
That serendipitous discovery reveals a few things about the vulture. For one, they are surprisingly tolerant of people. You’d be lucky to get within a hundred feet of other raptors. With the black vulture, no such buffer is needed. Two former nest sites on the Mohonk Preserve, used for a number of years, were located within a couple of feet of well-traveled climbing routes, said Bridges.
For another, like all New World vultures, the black vulture doesn’t build a nest. Instead, it looks for a hard-to-reach, though not necessarily elevated, recessed area. “Caves, hollow logs, stumps and tree trunks, crevices among rocks, brushpiles, thickets, abandoned buildings and sites beside or under trees and logs are all used,” notes a Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America article by Neil Buckley.
The last large-scale survey of New York birds was done in 2000 to 2005. Splitting the state into over 5,000 geographic blocks, it reported confirmed nests in five blocks, with suspected nests in 100. This was a significant increase since the last survey, in 1980 to ‘85, when no sites were found or suspected. It seems safe to say that the black vulture has continued to increase ever since, as evidenced on local Christmas Bird Counts and the citizen-science site eBird.org.
As to why they’re moving north from their historic range, the short answer, according to Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is “We don’t know.” Global warming has been suggested, but the northward shift has been uneven: moving up the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia, and along the Hudson north to the St. Lawrence, with little change in the Midwest.
He suggests several other possible causes. The first is an increase in the number of wildlife in the area, especially white-tailed deer. Another was the ban on the pesticide DDT, which weakened eggshells and brought many species to the brink of extinction in the mid-20th century. Attitudes about vultures may also may have played a role. “It used to be legal and socially acceptable to shoot vultures,” said McGowan. “Country kids, if a big bird got close enough, they shot it. That was just the ethos of how people lived in the ’40s, ’50s and into the ’60s. And around the ’60s, that stuff started to change.”
It seems fair to say that black vultures, like turkey vultures and large birds in general, are thriving in their home range for a number of a reasons and, as their numbers increase, will continue to explore new areas as long as there’s food available.
“Pleasure in society”
In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, animals are the exemplars. Men are acquisitive, frivolous, the “weakest and most defenseless of all living things”; killing them is “unsportsmanlike.” The beasts are fast, deadly and noble, bound to the Law of the Jungle, a no-nonsense code with a place for everyone – all the beasts except the monkeys, who have no law, pester the animals below from the treetops and exhibit a lack of resolve that must have been even more galling to Victorian sensibilities than our own. (“They carry a branch half a day, meaning to do great things with it, and then they snap it in two.”)
This contrast of the stoic and puckish comes to mind when comparing the black and turkey vultures. Black vultures often fly above turkey vultures, taking advantage of that bird’s superior sense of smell to lead them to carrion, where the black vultures often gang up on the turkey vultures to scare them off the carcass. They’re also much more destructive to our built world, tearing rubber from windshield wipers, sunroofs and shingles, as well as screen doors. Scientists don’t know why they do this.
“They’re funny birds, too; they’re pesky,” said McGowan. When he was working for the Florida Fish & Game Commission, he got a call about vultures coming into a ranch house and tearing up lawn and pool furniture. He was skeptical, but the reports were true. “They tend to be destructive in what one might consider a playful way…They’re kind of like teenagers or something: If you get too many of them, [and] they’re hanging around and they don’t have anything to do, then they end up causing problems.”
McGowan said he was reminded of similar behavior in crows, which also seem interested in rubber. He thinks there might be something fascinating to the birds about the material: pliable but resilient, unlike anything they’d come across in nature. They enjoy tearing it because it’s a challenge they can conquer. “They’re just playing. They’re investigating their world, so they spend time on things that don’t immediately give them food or shelter. But in the long run, having those behaviors of being willing to look at new things pays off. And I think it’s sort of the same thing with the black vulture.”
Black vultures also resemble crows in their sociability. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin described black vultures he observed in Uruguay: “These vultures certainly may be called gregarious, for they seem to have pleasure in society, and are not solely brought together by the attraction of a common prey. On a fine day a flock may often be observed at a great height, each bird wheeling round and round without closing its wings, in the most graceful evolutions. This is clearly performed for the mere pleasure of the exercise, or perhaps is connected with their matrimonial alliances.”
In his Birds of North America article, Buckley describes the roost tree as a kind of community center, where pairs hang out when they’re not on nest duty, eligible singles mingle and foraging groups assemble. Relatives tend to share roosts, and most fights seem to be between non-kin, while mutual preening is more common among related individuals. The same roost tree can be used for years, often decades.
There isn’t a lot of data on this, but it seems that black vultures are potentially long-lived – up to 26 years – and they wait at least eight years to begin breeding, often an indicator of a steeper learning curve for adulthood. But are they smart?
“Intelligence is a tricky thing,” said McGowan. “They’re more social, so we see them doing things that turkey vultures don’t do; but I don’t know. I would predict from their hoodlum-type behavior that, yeah, they probably are. They definitely seem to be paying more attention to a larger swath of the world, anyway, than a turkey vulture does.”
Man versus bird
The tendency of black vultures to congregate in large numbers can cause problems. In addition to their tendency to tear at roofing and other materials that hold our homes and cars together, they’re not the tidiest birds. They employ projectile vomiting as a defense. Their droppings are highly acidic, and they defecate on their own legs to cool off. Also, the sight of 20 to 100 vultures in a single tree can be unsettling, material damage aside. They flare their wings out and hiss like baby dragons if you get too close.
If you’re having a vulture problem in this part of New York State, you might find yourself on the phone with USDA wildlife services biologist and district manager Ken Preusser.
“We get sporadic complaints throughout the Hudson Valley throughout the year with vultures,” said Preusser. “Most of them are down in the lower Hudson Valley, but they do come up as far north as Columbia and sometimes Albany Counties.”
Preusser said the first black vulture call came in 2005. Since then, it’s estimated they’ve caused approximately $75,000 in damage in New York State.
Methods to remove vultures include lasers, sprinklers, pyrotechnics, trapping and effigies (hanging a dead or taxidermized vulture from a tree or roof). An effigy was deployed at a vulture-infested house on the corner of Henry W. DuBois Drive and Manheim Boulevard in New Paltz in 2009, and last year, traps were used to reduce a flock of about 120 that was causing damage at the Trevor Zoo in Millbrook.
Black vultures are known to prey on weak or injured live animals as well, though the extent of this behavior seems to be a matter of debate. Preusser said his department has received two calls from New York farmers reporting black vultures attacking newborn calves. In other states, annual damages are estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars. Under subheadlines like “Hated, but protected,” ranchers relate gruesome tales of calves picked apart by large flocks of pitiless buzzards.
McGowan thinks these stories may be exaggerated. “I have a feeling that’s largely Internet-generated hysteria,” he said. “They are known to do it, but it’s pretty rare.”
He thinks vultures might be getting blamed because they’re often present around the dead calf when the farmer discovers it, though it’s possible a coyote or stillbirth was responsible for the death. “It’s possible, but man, they’re just not made to be predators,” said McGowan. Vultures lack talons and their bills are made to pick, not kill. “They’re not really capable of delivering a convincing killing blow.”
Even if the tales of black vulture killing sprees are exaggerated, it’s expected that between agricultural and property damage, conflicts between man and vulture in New York State will increase. “The population here is increasing, so I think the damage caused by black vultures is likely to increase in the future, based on the population of the birds and the areas that they’re inhabiting,” said Preusser.
Back to the Gunks, where the story of the black vulture in New York State began, hikers get to see them eye-to-eye on Bonticou Crag. On the trails below, songbirds sing, chipmunks chirp and scurry, cicadas drone and an occasional shadow might pass over the sun-dappled ground. Up there, it’s just you and the vultures – or at least that’s how it seemed on a recent sunny Sunday morning. After ascending Bonticou’s rock scramble, I was greeted with the sight of a black vulture on a nearby outcropping gazing northwest toward the Catskills. In silhouette, to the untrained eye, they’re hard to distinguish from a turkey vulture, or any other raptor of similar size. But close up, there’s no mistaking them. The black vulture looks surprisingly like a dark, crinkle-faced seagull, with the personal style of a crow, though larger than either. This particular bird spent around 20 minutes on the ledge, moving from one side to the other a few times with a characteristic vulture hop, sometimes looking over at me and rotating its neck nearly 180 degrees like a curious dog.
Over on the other side of the crag, I got as close as I could to some turkey vultures. With their long and broad body and small red head, they really do resemble turkeys, especially when perched. But like their namesake, these birds cleared out before I could get too close, and joined their brethren, who were soaring around the summit of the crag, below, above and often directly at eye-level, making a sound like a kite caught in a stiff breeze as they turned.
There’s something sublime about sharing a mountaintop with a vulture. Climbers speak about the bird with affection; one even remarked that it was “actually pretty clean-looking.” Now the black vulture has many qualities, but cleanliness is not one of them. But I think I know what he meant. A dark shape in sharp relief against the white rock, with the valley below and distant mountains a hazy green, you get a good look at the bird — one could say a clean look. And it looks back at you, unafraid.