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Know difference between vultures

Black vultures can become aggressive and kill calves, lambs, piglets and other weak animals.

Jennifer Kiel

May 12, 2022

2 Min Read
turkey vulture vs. black vulture
KNOW THE DIFFERENCE: The turkey vulture (left) is the larger of the two species, weighing about 4 pounds with a 6‐foot wingspan. The adult has a featherless, bright red head, and its body is mostly dark brown or black with pinkish legs. Turkey vultures have longer tails than black vultures. The black vulture (right) weighs less than 4 pounds, with a wingspan of less than 5 feet. It is mostly black, with white or gray legs.Joe McDonald, WilliamSherman/Getty Images

Two types of vultures exist in Indiana. The red-headed turkey vulture feeds only on the carcasses of dead animals. Its cousin, the black vulture, is an aggressive bird that will, on occasion, kill other animals for food.

This includes baby calves. However, the problem is that baby calves die of many other causes as well. The first step to knowing if you have a problem with black vultures attacking live animals is to know that you truly have black vultures in the area. That starts with identification.

“Black vultures normally feed on animal carcasses, which provide a valuable service to our ecosystem,” says Thomas Butler, wildlife biologist for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services. “However, they can become more aggressive and may attack and kill calves, lambs, piglets and other weak animals. This predatory behavior often results in serious injury to livestock, because vultures target the eyes and soft tissues. In most cases, due to the extent of their injuries, affected domestic animals must be euthanized.”

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As migratory birds, black vultures are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as by state laws and regulations, which means they can’t be killed or destroyed without a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Migratory Bird Depredation permit.

Study the side-by-side pictures provided at the beginning of the story carefully, experts suggest. The turkey vulture on the left is the larger of the two vultures. It weighs about 4 pounds with a 6‐foot wingspan. The adult has a featherless, bright red head which sets it apart. Body feathers of a turkey vulture are mostly dark brown or black with pinkish legs. Turkey vultures have a longer tail than black vultures.

The black vulture is shown on the right. It weighs less than 4 pounds. The wingspan of this species is typically less than 5 feet. Expect them to be mostly black, with white or gray legs.

Tom J. Bechman contributed to this story.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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