Our Bird Neighbors – Black Vulture

(Catharista atrata)

Called also : CARRION CROW

Length—About 24 inches. Wing spread over four feet.

Male and Female—Dull black ; under part of point of wings silvery gray ; head, neck, and base of bill dusky ; tip of bill and feet flesh colored or grayish; head and neck bare. Range—Common in South Atlantic and Gulf states, through Mexico to South America. Occasional in Western states.

Rare north of Ohio.

Season—Permanent resident.

With a heavier, more thickset body than the turkey buzzard’s and shorter wings, this very common “carrion crow” may be identified in mid-air by its comparative lack of grace in flight, its frequent wing flapping, and its smaller size, which is more apparent than real, however, since its stocky build offsets its narrower wing-spread. Five or six quick, vigorous flaps of the wings send the bird sailing off horizontally ; another series of wing flappings carries it up higher for another sail ; but the flight is heavy and labored when compared with the majestic spiral floating of the buzzard, and it lacks the fascination that characterizes that other vulture’s motion. Seen on the ground, the dusky head of the carrion crow is alone sufficient to differentiate it from the red-headed buzzard. It is also black instead of brown ; and its tail is short and rounded.

A more southerly range and a decided preference for the sea-coast, and for the habitations of men, again distinguish it; but in nesting and other habits than those noted these two vultures are almost identical. From North Carolina southward, every city and village contains a horde of these dusky scavengers, walking about the streets as familiarly as chickens to pick up the scraps of food that so quickly become putrid in a warm climate ; or, perched upon the chimney tops, drying and warming their grim, spectre-like bodies. Every market place is haunted by them more persistently than by the turkey buzzard ; for the carrion crows will be walked on by the crowd rather than leave the refuse of the butcher’s stalls. One bird in Charleston, S. C., has visited a certain butcher regularly for twenty years. While both species are cowards, it is the black vulture that invariably secures the tidbit in the refuse heap from under the very beak of the turkey buzzard that stands in ridiculous awe of its heavy weight. But it is only at feeding time that these two vultures associate. The black vulture is decidedly the more gregarious. A carcass of horse or hog will sometimes be entirely concealed under an animate mass of these sable scavengers, perhaps two hundred or more fiercely clawing at the loathsome food. They gave the final touch of horror to the scene after the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Santiago when the sailors were washed ashore, and to the battlefields where our own dead soldiers lay. One of the Rough Riders who had shown magnificent courage in the presence of the enemy, went into violent hysterics at the sight of the vultures hovering over his fallen friends in the underbrush about Baiquiri.