I have a real soft spot for Black Vultures. It’s not that they’re so ugly that they’re kind of cute, although that is definitely the case with these big carrion eaters. It’s that some of them are real characters. They don’t intend to amuse, I’m certain of that, but amuse they do. It’s safe to say that they exhibit mannerisms and behaviors that one doesn’t see every day.
Black Vultures are relatively uncommon in southeastern Arizona (their cousins, Turkey Vultures, are seen much more often). They are much more common in the southeastern United States and in Mexico. In Latin America their range extends all the way down into the South American continent. A few years ago Louisa and I were in Costa Rica and they were everywhere. But, here, they show up in only a few locations. One can find them on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and in the agricultural valleys and flatlands north to about Casa Grande. Evidently, they were unknown in Arizona prior to about 1920 but have gradually extended their range northward. These are birds that profit from human activity. They like to be near garbage dumps, feed lots, and slaughterhouses — anywhere that animal waste is disposed of, because for them, that’s where the food is.
I never pass up the opportunity to photograph these birds. One invariably sees them in flocks, sometimes flocks consisting of many dozens of birds. It’s characteristic for a group of them to roost together on utility wires.
One never knows what these birds will do when they are approached. Sometimes they fly, sometimes not. Sometimes, they sit quietly, and sometimes they seem almost to mug for the camera. Their facial expressions can be weird at times, almost comically so.
The bird in the foreground of this second image is yawning. I don’t know whether it was bored or just sleepy after a heavy meal.
Last weekend my friend Ned Harris and I were driving around agricultural country in southeastern Arizona when we came across a Black Vulture sitting on the edge of an irrigation canal. We parked about 30 meters away from the bird and began advancing towards it on foot. The bird showed no interest in flying. We approached it slowly until we were no more than about 3 meters from it. Still, it didn’t fly. Ned and I photographed that bird for at least 15 minutes and it cooperated by sitting there quietly the entire time.
A close up like this really shows off the bird’s features well. That bald head is an evolutionary adaptation that enables the vulture to immerse its head into carrion without getting its feathers contaminated. That very long, hooked beak is perfectly designed for ripping dead flesh, but not for capturing a live animal. Black Vultures have relatively weak feet and small claws that enable them to stand on the ground for long periods, as this one is doing, but that are poorly adapted for seizing prey. Notice how white the bird’s legs are? Another amazing evolutionary adaptation. Vultures urinate on their legs! They do it because the urine’s evaporation on a hot and dry day is an efficient cooling mechanism for the birds. That white powder on the legs is deposited urea.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO+1.4X Extender, aperture priority setting. The first image shot at ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/3200. The second image shot at ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/640. The third image shot at ISO 320, f8 @ 1/500.