The American Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus, also known as the Black Vulture, is a bird in the New World vulture family whose range extends from the southeastern United States to South America. Although a common and widespread species, it has a somewhat more restricted distribution than its compatriot, the Turkey Vulture, which breeds well into Canada and south to Tierra del Fuego. Despite the similar name and appearance, this species is unrelated to the Eurasian Black Vulture. The latter species is an Old World vulture in the family Accipitridae (which includes eagles, hawks, kites and harriers), whereas the American species is a New World vulture. It is the only extant member of the genus Coragyps, which is in the family Cathartidae. It inhabits relatively open areas which provide scattered forests or shrublands. With a wingspan of 1.5 m (5 ft) the American Black Vulture is a large bird though relatively small for a vulture. It has black plumage, a featherless, grayish-black head and neck, and a short, hooked beak.
The American Black Vulture is a scavenger and feeds on carrion, but will also eat eggs or kill newborn animals. In areas populated by humans, it also feeds at garbage dumps. It finds its meals either by using its keen eyesight or by following other (New World) vultures, which possess a keen sense of smell. Lacking a syrinx—the vocal organ of birds—its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses. It lays its eggs in caves or hollow trees or on the bare ground, and generally raises two chicks each year, which it feeds by regurgitation. In the United States, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This vulture also appeared in Mayan codices.
The exact taxonomic placement of the American Black Vulture and the remaining six species of New World vultures remains unclear. Though both are similar in appearance and have similar ecological roles, the New World and Old World vultures evolved from different ancestors in different parts of the world. Just how different the two are is currently under debate, with some earlier authorities suggesting that the New World vultures are more closely related to storks. More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformes along with the Old World vultures, or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes. The South American Classification Committee has removed the New World vultures from Ciconiiformes and instead placed them in Incertae sedis, but notes that a move to Falconiformes or Cathartiformes is possible.
There are three subspecies of American Black Vulture:
Fossil (or subfossil) Black Vultures cannot necessarily be attributed to the Pleistocene or the recent species without further information: the same size variation found in the living bird was also present in its larger prehistoric relative. Thus, in 1968, Hildegarde Howard separated the Mexican birds as Coragyps occidentalis mexicanus as opposed to the birds from locations farther north (such as Rancho La Brea) which constituted the nominate subspecies C. o. occidentalis. The southern birds were of the same size as present-day North American Black Vultures and can only be distinguished by their somewhat stouter tarsometatarsus and the flatter and wider bills, and even then only with any certainty if the location where the fossils were found is known. As the Pleistocene and current American Black Vultures form an evolutionary continuum rather than splitting into two or more lineages, some include the Pleistocene taxa in C. atratus.
The American Black Vulture is a very large bird of prey, measuring 65 centimeters (25.5 in) in length, with a 1.5 meter (5 ft) wingspan and a weight of 2-2.75 kilograms (4.5-6 lb). Its plumage is mainly glossy black. The head and neck are featherless and the skin is dark gray and wrinkled. The iris of the eye is brown and has a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid. The legs are grayish white, while the two front toes of the foot are long and have small webs at their bases. The feet are flat, relatively weak, and are poorly adapted to grasping; the talons are also not designed for grasping, as they are relatively blunt.
The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but rather are perforate; from the side one can see through the beak. The wings are broad but relatively short. The bases of the primary feathers are white, producing a white patch on the underside of the wing's edge, which is visible in flight. The tail is short and square, barely reaching past the edge of the folded wings. The subspecies differ in size according to Bergmann's Rule, and the amount of white underwing coloration also varies. As it probably forms a cline over its entire range, the species is often considered monotypic.
A leucistic Coragyps atratus brasiliensis was observed in Piñas, Ecuador in 2005. It had white plumage overall, with only the tarsus and tail as well as some undertail feathers being black. It was not an albino as its skin seemed to have had the normal, dark color and it was part of a flock of some twenty normally-plumaged individuals.
It soars high while searching for food, holding its wings horizontally when gliding. It flaps in short bursts which are followed by short periods of gliding. Its flight is less efficient than that of other vultures, as the wings are not as long, forming a smaller sail surface. In comparison with the Turkey Vulture, the American Black Vulture flaps its wings more frequently during flight. It is known to regurgitate when approached or disturbed, which assists in predator deterrence and taking flight by decreasing its takeoff weight. Like all New World Vultures, the American Black Vulture often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known as urohydrosis. It cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi and feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs. Because it lacks a syrinx, the American Black Vulture, like other New World Vultures, has very few vocalization capabilities. It is generally silent, but can make soft hisses and grunts. The American Black Vulture is gregarious, and roosts in large groups. In areas where their ranges overlap, the American Black Vulture will roost on the bare branches of dead trees with groups of Turkey Vultures. The American Black Vulture generally forages in groups; a flock of Black Vultures can easily drive a Turkey Vulture, which is generally solitary while foraging, from a carcass.
Like the Turkey Vulture, this vulture is often seen standing in a spread-winged stance. The stance is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria. This same behavior is displayed by other New World vultures, Old World vultures, and storks.
The American Black Vulture also occasionally feeds on livestock or deer. It is the only species of New World vulture which preys on cattle. It occasionally harasses cows which are giving birth, but primarily preys on new-born calves. In its first few weeks, a calf will allow vultures to approach it. The vultures swarm the calf in a group, then peck at the calf's eyes, or at the nose or the tongue. The calf then goes into shock and is killed by the vultures.
The American Black Vulture lays its eggs on the ground in a wooded area, a hollow log, or some other cavity, seldom more than 3 meters (10 ft) above the ground. While it generally does not use any nesting materials, it may decorate the area around the nest with bits of brightly-colored plastic, shards of glass, or metal items such as bottle caps. Clutch size is generally two eggs, though this can vary from one to three. The egg is oval and on average measures 7.56 by 5.09 centimeters (3 by 2 in). The smooth, gray-green, bluish, or white shell is variably blotched or spotted with lavender or pale brown around the larger end. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 28 to 41 days. Upon hatching, the young are covered with white down. Both parents feed the nestlings, regurgitating food at the nest site. The young remain in the nest for two months, and after 75 to 80 days they are able to fly skillfully.
The American Black Vulture is considered a threat by cattle ranchers due to its predation on newborn cattle. The droppings produced by American Black Vultures and other vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. The American Black Vulture can be held in captivity, though the Migratory Bird Treaty Act only allows this in the case of animals which are injured or unable to return to the wild. It receives special legal protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States, by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada, and by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Game Mammals in Mexico. In the United States it is illegal to take, kill, or possess American Black Vultures and violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to US$15,000 and imprisonment of up to six months. It is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Populations appear to remain stable, and it has not reached the threshold of inclusion as a threatened species, which requires a decline of more than 30 percent in ten years or three generations.
The American Black Vulture appears in a variety of Maya hieroglyphics in Mayan codices. It is normally connected with either death or as a bird of prey. The vulture’s glyph is often shown attacking humans. This species lacks the religious connections that the King Vulture has. While some of the glyphs clearly show the American Black Vulture’s open nostril and hooked beak, some are assumed to be this species because they are vulture-like but lack the King Vulture's knob and are painted black.
Boonshoft's black vulture dies at 40 Horrence may have been the oldest vulture in the country, if not the world, officials say.
May 11, 2006; DAYTON -- Horrence, a black vulture who spent most of her life at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery and appeared in special...
J Wildl Dis.: Association of Mycoplasma corogypsi and polyarthritis in a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) in Virginia.(Report)(Brief article)
Dec 01, 2009; On October 10, 2007, a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) was presented to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, Waynesboro, Virginia,...