Missouri's Other Vulture

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Two species of vultures reside in Missouri, the black and the turkey. The turkey vulture, sometimes called a buzzard, is common throughout the state. The black vulture is lesser known and occurs only in the most southern counties of Missouri.

Black vultures look like a smaller version of their red-headed kin. In fact, black vultures are sometimes mistaken for young turkey vultures. Black vultures grow to about 25 inches long, have 5-foot wingspans and weigh nearly 4.5 pounds. The naked head of a black vulture is, as you might expect, black.

The only parts of its body that aren't black are whitish patches on the outer edge of each wing. The black vulture's tail is broad and rather short for a creature of such size, and its feet extend nearly to the end of the tail. In flight the tail looks as if it blends right into the wings, giving the bird a compact appearance.

By contrast, turkey vultures have red heads as adults, with the immature vulture's head being a rather dull grayish-brown. An adult turkey vulture can grow to about 27 inches long, have a 6-foot wingspan and weigh up to 5.5 pounds. Their tails extend well beyond the feet and seem to balance the size of the body. A good view of the underside of the wings reveals a light band that runs from the body to the tips of the primaries.

The flight of each bird is unique, as well. The turkey vulture's flight is lazy, almost mesmerizing, with few flaps of the wings. The wings are kept in a V-shape with the tips higher than the body as the bird sails, swaying side to side. Black vultures seem to work harder at flying, with heavy flaps of the wings interspersed with short glides. The wings are held horizontal to the body, giving the bird a flatter flight profile.

It was thought that the black vulture inhabited only southeast Missouri, and even then was not considered common. Not until 1986 were black vultures documented in the Tri-Lakes area of southwest Missouri in any number, due in part to the work of Dr. Jane Fitzgerald of Reeds Spring and Patrick Mahnkey of Forsyth.

Fitzgerald and Mahnkey observed black vultures roosting with turkey vultures in southwest Missouri. Black vultures may have always occurred there but were apparently overlooked.

Where the ranges of the two vultures overlap, the two species accommodate each other, even roosting in the

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