Carolyn Gritzmaker Indian Trail Master Naturalist
If you scan the sky overhead on almost any given day, you are bound to find a vulture soaring. There are two kinds of vultures in Ellis and Navarro counties, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus). Both are here throughout the year.
The most common by far is the Turkey Vulture. This bird gets its name from the red skin on its head and its dark body feathers which make it somewhat resemble a turkey. At 27 inches long, with a wingspan of 69 inches, the Turkey Vulture is one of the largest birds in our area, and certainly one of the most majestic fliers. A graceful bird while in the air, the Turkey Vulture loses that grace when on the ground. It has an awkward walk, and when it hops, it does so with an odd sideways hitch which makes it appear even more clumsy. It seems to take quite an effort to become airborne, visibly straining with flopping wings to do so.
Once aloft, the Turkey Vulture will soar for hours with its outstretched wings in a shallow ”v”-shape, almost never flapping its wings. Overhead, it can be recognized by its long tail, small head and silvery trailing edge of its wings.
Vultures are known for their keen eyesight, but not for their sense of smell. Experiments over a 25 year period have shown that the Turkey Vulture, unlike the Black Vulture, does have a keen sense of smell also, and is able to locate food by both sight and smell.
The Black Vulture is also found here, but is not nearly so common. Slightly smaller than the Turkey Vulture, the black is 25 inches long with a wingspan of 57 inches. Its head and part of its neck is covered with wrinkled black skin and its plumage is black overall. It is easily recognized in flight by its short, squared tail which barely reaches past its wide wings and by a white patch or “window” toward the tip of each wing. The Black Vulture flies with its wings stretched flat and will beat its wings rapidly a few times, with short glides interspersed.
It would appear the Turkey Vulture is more buoyant in flight than the black and may soar in majestic circles, never flapping its wings as it rides the updrafts. The Black Vulture, riding the same air current, will have to flap its wings from time to time.
Their food is mostly carrion, and they are often found along the highways where animals struck by passing cars are a dependable food supply. Vultures are usually silent, but may grunt, growl or bark while fighting over food. Black Vultures are more aggressive and will usually drive a Turkey Vulture from an animal carcass. Their choice of food may be unpleasant to us, but vultures perform a valuable sanitation service in cleaning up the countryside. And they are marvelous in the air.