The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Out and About In The Mountains - Buzzards

By Fran Stoddard © 1985

Issue: January, 1985

out and about in the mountainsAre Vultures and Buzzards the same? Illustration by Susan M. Thigpen.Are Vultures and Buzzards the same? What Good are Vultures?

If you looked up "Buzzard" in the dictionary, these are some definitions you would get: "1. Any of various hawks that are slow and heavy in flight. 2. Same as Turkey Buzzard." Then look up the word "Vulture" and these are what you would find: "1. A large bird related to the eagles and hawks. 2. Same as TURKEY BUZZARD.” Those are from Webster's New World Dictionary.

So if we went by that and by what we hear people in certain areas call them, you might conclude that a buzzard and a vulture are one and the same. Not so! The #1's are correct, but not #2’s.

If we 'go to an authority on birds, "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds" we find this statement: "Vultures are often called buzzards, a Western misnomer (meaning misnamed) originally applied to Buteo Hawks in the Old World."

Some Buteos or Buzzard hawks we have in this country include the Red-tailed Hawks, the Red- Shouldered Hawk, and the Broad-Winged Hawk. They are all large, thickset hawks with broad wings and wide rounded tails. They usually soar high in wide circles. They capture their food alive, such as rodents, rabbits, small birds (occasionally), reptiles and insects.

There are some Buteos or Buzzard Hawks that resemble vultures from a distance. Since vultures feed on dead animals or carrion, a rabbit for example, might mistakenly think the harmless vulture is near when in reality it is their enemy the hawk.

There are two kinds of Vultures in this area; the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture. Neither one are very pretty close up, but as they soar in the skies above, their graceful flight is beauty in action.

The Turkey Vulture is the larger of the two, being 26-32 inches, about the size of an eagle, and with a wing-span of six feet. In flight you can tell it from the eagle because its wings form a kind of flattened out "V". Also, looking up at it, perhaps best with binoculars, it looks two-toned black in color. The finger-like wingtips, and flight feathers are grey or paler than the upper blacker part. It is rocked and tilted by the winds as it soars above the earth in search of food. It has a relatively small head compared to hawks and eagles, it's head is naked and red. The young do not have red heads, theirs are blackish like the Black Vulture. Their heads resemble turkeys, hence the name.

The Black Vulture is not as big as the Turkey Vulture. It is 23-27 inches. It too is a scavenger. It has a shorter, more squared off tail and has a whitish patch toward the wing tip. Its legs are long and whiter, compared to the yellow feet of the Turkey Vulture. It is not as graceful in flight, its wings are five feet in spread. It makes quick, labored flaps of its wings and alternates with short glides.

Both Black and Turkey Vultures can be seen soaring the skies, perched on dead trees or on the ground near carrion. Because the highways take such a toll of animal lives, they are often seen along roadways. They enjoy similar habitats, but the Black Vulture tends to avoid the higher mountains.

What good are Vultures? Well, what good are vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals, and sewer plants? the purpose of Vultures in the ecology of nature is to clean up dead and decaying carcasses. They detect the smell from up in the air. Both kinds will congregate at large carcasses, but they also hunt individually.

Their young are raised in sheltered or inaccessible rock ledges, hollow trees, or on the ground. They do not lay their 1-3 whitish blotched eggs in nests.

So, the answers to your questions are: No, Vultures and Buzzards are not the same. The good they do is to keep our environment clean from decaying carcasses of dead animals. I'm really glad we have such a fine helper in the Blue Ridge area, aren't you?

If there are any questions you have about Blue Ridge Wildlife, or if you have suggestions for this type of articles, Fran welcomes hearing from you. Her address is:

Fran Stoddard
Rt. 5, Box 34
Marion, N.C. 28752