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I took one of my drives into farm country near Tucson the other day. I was driving on a quiet country road when I noticed a familiar shape perched on a pole. It was a Black Vulture. I was very pleased to see this bird. Black Vultures are a relatively uncommon sight in the outlying areas around Tucson. Indeed, there aren’t all that many of these birds in Arizona. Although they are fairly common in the southeastern United States they show up only sporadically around here. There’s a population of these birds on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation southwest of Tucson and smaller groups of them in a few other rural communities.
I’d finished photographing the vulture when I noticed several black shapes on the ground about 200 yards further down the road. There were more black vultures, about a half-dozen of them. They had gathered in a small group. I drove towards them slowly, stopped the car about 50 yards away, and approached them on foot. They were seemingly indifferent to my presence and I eventually walked to a point about 10 yards away.
It soon became apparent to me what had attracted their attention. The vultures were feeding on the carcass of an animal, quite possibly that of a coyote.
They weren’t about to leave their meal, even with me standing only a couple dozen feet away from them.
Black vultures are fascinating birds. They are related to our other vulture species, the Turkey Vulture. However, ornithologists haven’t decided definitively what else these birds are related to. At one point experts classified them as being related to storks. Lately, the more popular theory seems to be that they are distant relatives of falcons.
These big birds are social. It’s unusual to see only one of them. That is one of the factors that distinguishes them from Turkey Vultures, who often are solitary except when migrating. Black Vultures have a sort of ungainly appearance on the ground, but that is highly misleading. They are superb fliers, among the best soarers of all birds. They have exceptional eyesight and can spot potential food from a long distance.
Their social interaction is complex and fun to watch. The vultures that I observed showed no animosity towards each other as they took turns feeding on the carcass. One would step up, tear off pieces of flesh, and after having eaten, retreat a few yards. Immediately, another vulture would approach and take its place. It was almost as if they had assigned numbers, like patrons at the deli counter in our supermarket. In fact, their behavior probably indicated that there were dominant and subordinate birds within the group.
A lot of people contend that these vultures are ugly and even disgusting. In fact, they perform a highly useful function. They are nature’s cleanup crew, ridding our landscape of dead creatures that would otherwise rot and serve as breeding grounds for flies. I have real affection for them even if they are somewhat messy eaters at times.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting. All images shot at ISO 500 and f8, except for the fourth, shot at f7.1. The first image shot at 1/640; remaining images at 1/800 or 1/1000.