Vulture Facts

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Five turkey vultures standing over a dead carp on the edge of a lake
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Vultures Slow the Spread of Diseases

Vultures play a crucial role in our ecosystem. As scavengers, they eat dead animals, removing them from roadsides and other areas. Vultures not only cut down on the number of rotten, smelly carcasses but also reduce the spread of diseases.

Bacteria and Viruses Die in Vultures' Stomachs

The acid in the stomach of a vulture is so strong that it kills most bacteria and viruses, including rabies. This means that when a vulture eats a dead raccoon that had distemper or rabies, the disease dies in the vulture’s stomach and can no longer infect any animals. But if a possum (or your dog) were to eat that same dead raccoon, they could get the disease and also spread it to more animals.

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Group of black vultures feeding on animal remains
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Made for Scavenging

Vultures are highly adapted for their scavenging lifestyle. While many animals scavenge, vultures are the only land vertebrates (animals with a backbone) that rely almost entirely on dead animals for food.  

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Vultures have extra-strong stomach acid that kills most bacteria and viruses, including rabies. Because of this acid, vultures can eat rotten meat that would make other animals sick or give them botulism. Since most diseases die in vultures’ stomachs, vultures don’t get sick if they eat a sick animal and they don’t get food poisoning.

Due to this disease-killing ability, vultures remove disease from the landscape when they eat and thus prevent health risks to humans and other wildlife.

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The turkey vulture is one of only a few birds that have a well-developed sense of smell. In fact, its sense of smell may even be better than that of a dog. The ability to smell gives turkey vultures a huge advantage when searching for food. Since they don’t have to rely on sight alone, they can find carcasses more quickly than other scavenging birds and can find dead animals that are hidden under trees and bushes.

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Bald heads help vultures stay cleaner when they eat. Vultures often stick their heads inside carcasses when they feed. If they had feathers on their heads, blood and goop would get stuck in their feathers, attracting flies or holding bacteria that could lead to an infection.

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Sharp, hooked beaks help vultures tear the meat from carcasses.

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When soaring, vultures can spot carcasses from as far as a mile away.

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Long, broad wings help vultures find carcasses faster than scavengers that can’t fly. Their wings allow vultures to easily soar and travel quickly from one place to another. Trees, boulders, and hills can slow down scavengers like coyotes and possums and keep them from seeing a dead animal from a distance. With their bird’s-eye view and ability to fly over obstacles, vultures are often the first to find a carcass.

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Missouri's Vultures
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Two species of vultures live in Missouri:  turkey vultures and black vultures. Both are large, dark-colored birds with naked (featherless) heads, but with a little practice, you can learn to tell them apart.

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Turkey Vultures

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Average weight4 pounds

Wingspan: 6 feet

Flight pattern:

Turkey vultures hold their wings upwards in a shallow “V” shape. They rarely flap and often appear to wobble, or rock side to side, as they soar. When viewed from below, the lower half of the wings appear silver or grayish white in color.

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Black Vultures

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Average weight: 4 pounds

Wingspan: 5 feet

Flight pattern:

Black vultures hold their wings more horizontal (flatter) than turkey vultures and also flap more, often in bursts of three to four quick flaps. Their wings have white patches at the end. 

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For life history information, read about these vultures in the online field guide.

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Vulture ID Tips

In addition to knowing the vultures' flight patterns (above), these field marks will help you tell which vulture is which. 

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Close-up of turkey vulture head
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Adult turkey vultures have red heads, white beaks, and coffee-brown plumage. The nostrils of turkey vultures are very large and, sometimes when viewed from the side, you can see through them. 

Noppadol Paothong

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Close-up of black vulture head
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Adult black vultures have grayish heads and black plumage. They have slimmer bills than turkey vultures.

Noppadol Paothong

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Turkey vulture in flight
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When turkey vultures are viewed from below, the lower half of their wings appear silver or grayish white in color.

Dianne Van Dien

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Black vulture in flight
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The wings of black vultures have white patches at the ends. They appear stockier and have shorter tails than turkey vultures.

Dianne Van Dien

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Juvenile turkey vulture perched
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Young turkey vultures have gray heads and black beaks. When identifying vultures, be sure to look at other field marks besides head color to tell if a vulture is a black vulture or juvenile turkey vulture.

Don Shelden

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Close-up of the head of a juvenile black vulture
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To tell the difference between juvenile and adult black vultures, look closely. The heads of juvenile black vultures are slightly darker and appear less bumpy than the heads of adult black vultures.

Jim Rathert

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Where to See Vultures in Missouri

Turkey vultures are very common in Missouri. They are found throughout the state from March to October and in the southern half all year long. Black vultures are very rarely seen in the northern half of the state but can be found in southern portions.

Great places to watch vultures include:

  • Lake of the Ozarks
  • Truman Lake (especially around the dam and visitor center in Warsaw)
  • Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery (near Branson)
  • Montauk State Park
  • Blue Springs Lake (turkey vultures only)
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Vultures are protected!

Black vultures and turkey vultures are both federally protected. It is not legal to kill, shoot, or harm them.

One exception: If vultures are damaging your property or killing livestock, you can apply for a permit to shoot a specified number of vultures on your property. But you must have this permit!

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Frequently Asked Questions
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Not necessarily. Often when you see vultures circling, they are moving upwards, rising higher into the sky. The long, broad wings of vultures are not designed to do a lot of flapping. Instead of flapping, vultures use thermals (rising warm air) to gain altitude. When they find a thermal, they circle upwards on the rising air current until they reach the needed height, then they glide off in the direction they want to go. 

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Turkey vulture with wings open
Turkey vulture warming up in the morning sun.

Vultures hold their wings open to warm up in the sun and to dry their feathers after a heavy morning dew or a rainstorm. This open-winged pose is called the “horaltic pose.”

Cormorants, pelicans, and anhingas also use this open-winged pose to dry their feathers after swimming.

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No. Vultures have evolved to eat dead animals and have no reason to attack a live human or pet. However, if cornered or handled, they may bite or vomit. Vultures vomit when stressed, which gets predators to back off and makes the vultures lighter for an easier takeoff.

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It can be difficult to tell if a black vulture actually killed the animal it is feeding on or found it already dead. Farm animals, especially newborns, die from many causes. But black vultures sometimes do kill newborn calves and lambs. They are attracted to the afterbirth and may try to eat a newborn that is not yet able to stand and move away. Because black vultures tend to feed in groups, it can be hard for cows or ewes to scare them off, especially if they are first-time mothers.

Turkey vultures will feed on afterbirth but are not known to kill newborn animals or other livestock.

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Determine whether vultures are using your property as a winter or summer roost, or only as a temporary stopover during migration. Migration is generally September through November and late February through April. When migrating, vultures may hang out for only a few days, or a week or two, and then no action is needed on your part. The vultures will be leaving soon anyway.

Remove things that attract vultures.

Vultures may be attracted to an area because of trash and food waste, dead livestock, or outdoor feeding areas for pets (dog food and cat food can attract vultures). Removing these items or making them harder to access will discourage vultures from returning.

Use scare tactics to discourage vultures from returning.

If a group of vultures is regularly using trees for overnight roosting or is regularly hanging out on a rooftop, deck, or patio, you have several options for scaring them away.

  • Use noise-making devices such as firecrackers, or shoot a gun into the air if you are not within city limits. 
  • Use flashing lights (to scare roosting vultures at night)
  • Spray vultures with a water hose or set sprinklers to reach the area vultures are using.
  • Hang mylar tape, bird-scare tape, or helium-filled balloons on railings or in trees.

For these tactics to be most effective:

  • Start early in the season. The longer vultures use the same roost, the harder it is to get them to relocate.
  • Be persistent. Use scare tactics daily until the vultures stop coming back.

Cut down the dead trees that vultures are perching in.

Vultures like to perch in dead, leafless trees during the day. If vultures are using dead trees in your yard, cut down the trees and the vultures will go somewhere else.

Hang effigies.

You can make an effigy of a vulture or buy one. Place effigies in conspicuous locations so the vultures will easily see them, such as on a roof or hung upside down in the tree where the vultures roost. To use an actual dead vulture as an effigy, you must go through the USDA or Missouri Farm Bureau. It is not legal to kill a vulture without a permit.

 

If the above measures fail, you can request help from your local USDA APHIS Wildlife Services office.

 

 

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Both MDC and USDA Wildlife Services can offer assistance and guidance on deterring vultures.

Contact your local MDC wildlife damage biologist.

Contact your local USDA Wildlife Services office.

To develop a comprehensive plan for managing black vultures that are attacking livestock, contact USDA Wildlife Services.

 

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