The Black Vulture vs. The Turkey Vulture: How to Tell the Difference

Okay, so I’ve mentioned before how even though I love my neighbors to death, and respect them for their worldly wisdom and knowledge, but some of them have sometimes they don’t get their facts straight.

Turkey Vulture

For example, in Texas last year, someone pointed up to a vulture and said, “That’s a turkey buzzard. Nasty, mean birds.”

Since the turkey vulture is one of my favorite birds after hearing so many Native American creation stories about them, so I’d done some reading on them and I said, “Don’t you mean the black vulture?”

He said, “No, black vultures are the nice ones.”

Actually, he had the identification right, but got the personalities backwards.

Turkey Vulture Face.

To the left are pictures of turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are shy and gentle, avoiding confrontation. The beaks of turkey vultures are relatively weak and dull, and so are unable to rip open tough carcass hides.

For this reason, turkey vultures often hang out with black vultures. They’re about the same relative size, yet their

The Turkey Vulture in Flight. Note how the white extends across the entire wing.

beaks are capable of shredding tough hides. The black vultures gorge themselves and leave the rest to the turkeys. Cattle ranchers in Texas have reported vultures taking out newborn calves. They quickly blamed the turkey vultures, who are usually the only ones remaining at the black vulture’s kill.

The black vultures benefit from this cross-species flocking, too. A black vulture’s sense of smell sucks for a vulture, whereas turkey vultures have the best sense of smell of all land mammals, able to detect food miles away.



Black Vulture


On the right are pictures of the Black Vulture. They’re easy to distinguish once the points are brought out.




Black Vulture Face

Black Vulture in Flight. Note the white on the tips of the wings only.



This is the face of a black vulture. Their faces are gray or black. Obviously.




Commonly, you will see vultures from below. The wings of the black vulture are merely tipped in white. Turkey vultures have a broad band of white on the underside of the wing that spans the entire wing.



You’ll also see a lot of vultures on the ground, where they are harder to distinguish. The photograph below is a good example of turkey and black vultures hanging out together, just as they might be at a feeding. You can easily tell the turkeys from the blacks just by their red heads.

Black and Turkey Vultres hanging out together. Note the red faces of the two turkey vultures in the back.

Vultures are fascinating and amazing birds and I encourage you to read up on them to find out more about them. And don’t rely on the identifications of a Texas redneck unless it involves trucks, horses, dogs, or guns!


Categories: Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Post navigation

7 thoughts on “The Black Vulture vs. The Turkey Vulture: How to Tell the Difference

  1. I’m putting together a website on nature for our locals (Seabrook Island, SC) and your picture of the flying black vulture would be perfect. May I use it? Unfortunately, there’s not room for credits so your name would not show.

  2. I am working on a self guided tour booklet for the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education-North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Would you give permission to use the soaring black vulture photo? If yes- how would you like the photo credit to read? thx Melinda Patterson

    • Wow, somehow this post missed me. I hope you knew I don’t mind you using the photograph. Just credit the website. 🙂 Sorry for the long delay!

  3. Lisa

    Thanks for sharing this information on these fascinating birds!

  4. TreeHugger

    Very informative article, however, there is a key error. Your article says “turkey vultures have the best sense of smell of all land mammals, able to detect food miles away”. While they probably have a wonderful sense of smell, they are not mammals. Maybe you meant to say, better than any land mammal?

    • Actually, you bring up a good point. On re-reading this article, I realize I got that information from an old and unreliable source. Experts disagree which avian has the best sense of smell. Some sources say it’s the albatross, others the kiwi, others a certain type of parrot. Apparently, while the Turkey Vulture may have the best nose out of our North American avians, it does not have the best sense of smell overall when compared to land mammals – apparently, that title belongs to the bear family.

      However, another fun fact is Turkey Vultures are champions at finding leaks in natural gas pipes! (

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: