Get your vulture on!

2009 September 5


VICKSBURG, MISS. — Rather promptly at 9 a.m., dozens of large, blackish birds appeared in the skies over Vicksburg National Military Park and circled upward in the warming air, gradually spreading out across the hills and the Mississippi River valley. They were vultures, of course — Black and Turkey Vultures. And today is International Vulture Awareness Day 2009.

The vultures I saw today belong to the family Cathartidae (the name originates from the Greek for “pure” or “to cleanse), which consists of seven primarily carrion-eating species in North and South America. For this reason, the group is sometimes called “New World vultures,” though fossil evidence indicates that representatives once occured in the Old World too.


A Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) warms itself in the morning sun. The Turkey Vulture (or “turkey buzzard” to many North Americans) is one of very few bird species with a very powerful sense of smell, which it uses to locate the decaying flesh on which it feeds.

Cathartid vultures are a strange group of birds, traditionally placed in an order with hawks and falcons (which, as it turns out, don’t belong together either), but then for a time considered closer to storks. Now the cathartid-stork link is out, and although no one knows for sure what to do with them, support for a relationship with hawks and eagles looks stronger than anything else.

One member of this family, the magnificent California Condor, is teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the activities of man, but there’s still hope for its continued survival. Tai Haiku has a great rundown: Condors on my mind.

The vultures of Eurasia and Africa are entirely different beasts — or rather, two different groups of entirely different beasts. They do belong in the order Accipitriformes with hawks and eagles (falcons are removed), but in two different clades.

Three specialized species traditionally called vultures — Egyptian Vulture, Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), and Palm-nut Vulture — apparently belong in a clade containing a strange assortment of genera, including honey-buzzards, bazas, the Hook-billed Kite, and the Swallow-tailed Kite. See Phylogeny of eagles, Old World vultures, and other Accipitridae based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA (PDF) and John Boyd’s Accipitridae for more.

The other group, the genera Aegypius, Gyps, Necrosyrtes, Sarcogyps, Torgos, and Trigonoceps, do cluster together in a monophyletic group within the Accipitridae.


A White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) soars over Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This species, like its relatives, locates food entirely by sight.

Several species in this latter group have undergone mind-numbingly catastrophic declines (>95%) in the last few years, due in large part to the activities of man. Because these birds consume only carrion, they are extremely vulnerable to the presence of drugs and chemicals in the flesh of the animals they consume. Charlie Moores has the scoop.

It may be a bit much to say “hug a vulture today,” but they certainly can be appreciated and yes, even celebrated (seriously — wow). Check out dozens of great vulture-related posts at the IVAD09 Virtual Event. And here are a few more pictures of my own:


Hooded Vulture, Necrosyrtes monachus, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus, Dallas, Texas.


Lappet-faced Vulture, Torgos tracheliotus, Nairobi National Park, Kenya.


Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, Dallas, Texas.

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