Look up into the sky and you might see a variety of large predatory birds soaring overhead. While you might get lucky and note the bright white head and tail of a bald eagle, usually the large dark birds floating above are nature’s clean-up crew.

Black and turkey vultures are common in our region of Florida and can be seen nearly every day. Whether you notice them soaring on the upper level winds, spinning in lazy circles or picking over a carcass on the side of the road, it’s possible to discern which one you’re viewing even from a long distance.

Black vultures have all dark black feathers with a head of pebbly black skin ending in a dark bill. During summer months the young sport a bit of grayish fluff about their head but otherwise look nearly similar. Turkey vultures appear blackish from afar, but once close up you’ll notice more of a black-brown hue sort of similar to the coloration of a turkey. Adult turkey vultures have a reddish-skinned head and pale bill.

Bald faces make for cleaner dining when one is diving into a decaying critter. While this seems unappetizing, it highlights the very important role this predator fills in our natural systems. State and federally protected as a migratory bird, their focus on carrion equals a very special place in the food chain.

Turkey vultures have a highly developed sense of smell and can hone in on decaying flesh from miles away. Black vultures lack this extra-sensitive olfactory sense and rely on their keen vision. They will also follow turkey vultures to a carcass and then run them off to feed. Smaller but more aggressive, you may also see them hissing and running off larger predators such as caracara and even bald eagles from road kill. Neither vulture species vocalizes much other than a grunt or hiss.

If the birds are soaring overhead, identification is easy if you follow these tips. Check the wings and if it appears that just the “finger tips” are whitish, that’s a black vulture. If a lighter color lines the bottom half of the entire wing from “arm pit to finger tips,” you’re viewing a turkey vulture.

While turkey vultures are found throughout the entire United States, the black vulture is primarily seen in the south and eastern parts of the country. Vultures lay a brood of two eggs in a fallen log or tree hollow without preparing a nest. Parents split incubation duty until young hatch about a month later. Fed regurgitated food until they are ready to fly 8-10 weeks post hatching, the young mooch meals for months after they fledge. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

On those chilly mornings yet to come, scan the power poles and you’ll see vultures with wings spread to the sunrise gathering warmth. It they congregate at dumpsters or become a nuisance by roosting on roofs, the Department of Agriculture provides information on legal methods to alleviate problems on private property and can be reached at 352-377-5556.

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