BLACK VULTURE (Coragyps atratus)
The Black vulture is a bird of prey of the New World. It is entirely black, including the head, where the skin is wrinkled. Its size is fairly large, at approximately 70 cm (28 in.) long. The bill is black, and yellow at the tip. The nostrils are pervious, i.e. wide open to allow a better sense of smell. The legs are light grey. Vultures don’t have the capacity to grasp prey due to weak talons. Sexes are similar.
The black vulture is also called American black vulture to distinguish it from another bird named Black vulture or Cinereous or Eurasian black vulture, a raptor from the Old world whose Latin name is (Aegypius monachus). The name ‘vulture’ means ‘to tear’ in Latin, in reference to the way this bird feeds itself. The Latin word ‘atratus’ refers to the black color of the bird.
This bird will build its nest in trees or other available cavities not far from its feeding areas, i.e. open spaces near roads (for road kill) and garbage dumps. (So a good way to observe one is by visiting your nearest landfill!) It is mainly a carrion eater. Because of their specific diet, vultures don’t have any feathers on their heads. In order to digest the carcasses they feed from, they have strong stomach acids and gut bacteria that would kill a human.
Black vultures are fairly social and maintain strong family ties. In addition to gathering with other birds of its own species, they will also associate with Turkey vultures. They have a poor sense of smell as opposed to turkey vultures, so will follow the latter to locate carrion.
Black vultures will defecate on their own legs to keep them cool. They also lack a voice box, so can only emit a limited range of sounds. The distribution area of this raptor starts from the southeastern USA and extends southward to almost the whole South America. It does not migrate.
Conservation: this bird went through various cycles in terms of numbers, in part due to humans’ attitude toward them. For example, they were tolerated in the 1800s around markets for cleaning up discarded carcasses. Then in the early 1900s they were deemed a source of disease spread (unproven) and killed in the thousands. Then later they were impacted by DDT, and also poisoned by the lead in some of the carcasses they feed on. Recently though, their population has increased.
The black vulture is not breeding on PEI but its normal range keeps expanding northward. Sightings of this bird on the island so far have only been accidental or occasional. One bird was photographed in mid-November 2005 in Stratford, and another one at the Island Waste Management site in Dingwells Mills in March 2010.