American Black Vulture

American Black Vulture

name = American Black Vulture

image_width = 200px
image_caption = "Coragyps atratus brasiliensis" in Panama
status = LC
status_system = iucn3.1
status_ref =
regnum = Animalia
phylum = Chordata
classis = Aves
ordo = "Incertae sedis" (disputed)
familia = Cathartidae
genus = "Coragyps"
genus_authority = Saint-Hilaire, 1853
species = "C. atratus"
binomial = "Coragyps atratus"
binomial_authority = (Bechstein, 1793)
subdivision_ranks = Subspecies
subdivision =
* "C. a. atratus" Taxobox_authority | author = Bechstein | date = 1793 North American Black Vulture
* "C. a. foetens" Taxobox_authority | author = Lichtenstein | date = 1817 Andean Black Vulture
* "C. a. brasiliensis" Taxobox_authority | author = Bonaparte | date = 1850 Southern American Black Vulture
synonyms ="Cathartidarum" Winge, 1888

range_map_caption =Approximate range/distribution map of the American Black Vulture. Red indicates presence.

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 common name "vulture" is derived from the Latin word "vulturus", which means "tearer" and is a reference to its feeding habits.cite book
last =Holloway
first =Joel Ellis
title =Dictionary of Birds of the United States: Scientific and Common Names
publisher =Timber Press
year =2003
pages =59
url =
isbn =0881926000
] The species name, "atratus", means "clothed in black,"cite web|url=|author=Whitaker, William|title=Words by William Whitaker|accessdate=2007-11-05] from the Latin "ater" 'black'. [cite book | last = Simpson | first = D.P. | title = Cassell's Latin Dictionary | publisher = Cassell Ltd. | year = 1979 | edition = 5 | location = London | pages = 883 | id = ISBN 0-304-52257-0] The genus name, "Coragyps" means "raven-vulture",cite web|url=|author=Ietaka, Taro |title=Moving Beyond Common Names|accessdate=2007-11-05] from a contraction of the Greek "corax"/κοραξ and "gyps"/γυψ for the respective birds. The family name, "Cathartidae", means "purifier" and is also derived from the Greek "kathartēs"/καθαρτης. [ cite book|last=Liddell| first=Henry George|coauthor=Robert Scott|year=1980|title=Greek-English Lexicon, Abridged Edition |publisher=Oxford University Press|location= Oxford|isbn= 0-19-910207-4]

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. [Sibley, Charles G. and Burt L. Monroe. 1990. " [ Distribution and Taxonomy of the Birds of the World] ". Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04969-2. Accessed 2007-04-11.] More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformes along with the Old World vultures, [Sibley, Charles G., and Jon E. Ahlquist. 1991. " [ Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution] ". Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04085-7. Accessed 2007-04-11.] or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes. [Ericson, Per G. P.; Anderson, Cajsa L.; Britton, Tom; Elżanowski, Andrzej; Johansson, Ulf S.; Kallersjö, Mari; Ohlson, Jan I.; Parsons, Thomas J.; Zuccon, Dario & Mayr, Gerald (2006): Diversification of Neoaves: integration of molecular sequence data and fossils. "Biology Letters" online: 1-5. DOI|10.1098/rsbl.2006.0523 [ PDF preprint] [ Electronic Supplementary Material] (PDF)] 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.Remsen, J. V., Jr.; C. D. Cadena; A. Jaramillo; M. Nores; J. F. Pacheco; M. B. Robbins; T. S. Schulenberg; F. G. Stiles; D. F. Stotz & K. J. Zimmer. 2007. [ "A classification of the bird species of South America."] South American Classification Committee. Retrieved on 2007-10-15]

There are three subspecies of American Black Vulture:
*"C. a. atratus", named by the German ornithologist Johann Matthäus Bechstein in 1793, is known as the North American Black Vulture. It is the nominate subspecies. It is approximately the same size as "C. a. foetens", but its plumage is not as dark. Its range stretches from northern Mexico through Texas and the southern United States north to the Carolinas.
* "C. a. brasiliensis", named by Charles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte in 1850, is known as the Southern American Black Vulture. It is smaller than "C. a. atratus" and "C. a. foetens". The light markings on the undersides of the primaries are whiter and broader than those of the other subspecies, and the underwing coverts are lighter than those of "C. a. foetens". It is found in Central America and northern South America. To the south, the range extends to the coastal regions of Peru on the west and the lowlands of Bolivia on the east. To the north, it stretches to Sonora in western Mexico and San Luis Potosí in eastern Mexico. It is not found in high-altitude regions.cite book
last = Blake, Emmet Reid
title =Birds of Mexico: A Guide for Field Identification
publisher =University of Chicago Press
year =1953
pages =267
url =
ibsn= 0226056414
*"C. a. foetens", named by Martin Lichtenstein in 1817, is known as the Andean Black Vulture. It is approximately the same size as "C. a. atratus". The markings on the undersides of the primaries are smaller than those of the other subspecies, and the underwing coverts are darker. It is found in the Andes range, from northern Ecuador through Peru, northern Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the lowlands of Chile.

Evolutionary history of "Coragyps"

From the Early to the Late Pleistocene, a prehistoric species of Black Vulture, "Coragyps occidentalis", known as the Pleistocene Black Vulture or – somewhat in error – the "Western Black Vulture", occurred across the present species' range. This bird did not differ much from the American Black Vulture of today except in size; it was some 10-15% larger, and had a relatively flatter and wider bill. [cite journal
last =Fisher
first =Harvey L
coauthors =
title =The skulls of the Cathartid vultures
journal =Condor
volume =46
issue =6
pages =272–296
publisher =
location =
year =1944
url =
doi =10.2307/1364013
id =
accessdate = 2007-11-03
] It filled the same ecological niche as the living form, [cite journal
last =Hertel
first =Fritz
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Ecomorphological indicators of feeding behavior in Recent and fossil raptors.
journal =Auk
volume =12
issue =4
pages =890–903
year =1995
url =
doi =
id =
accessdate = 2007-11-03
] and indeed seems to have evolved into it by decreasing in size during the last ice age. [cite journal | last =Howard
first =Hildegarde
title =Bird Remains from a Prehistoric Cave Deposit in Grant County, New Mexico
journal =Condor
volume =64
issue =3
pages =241–242
year =1962
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-03
] cite journal
last =Steadman
first =David W
coauthors =Arroyo-Cabrales, Joaquin; Johnson, Eileen & Guzman, A. Fabiola
title = New Information on the Late Pleistocene Birds from San Josecito Cave, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
journal =Condor
volume =96
issue =3
pages =577–589
year =1994
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-03
doi = 10.2307/1369460
] Well documented from fossil bones, the genus "Coragyps" gives a rare glimpse in the evolutionary dynamics of two chronospecies. The final stages of this evolutionary transformation must have been witnessed by humans: a subfossil bone of the extinct species was found in an Paleo Indian to Early Archaic (9000-8000 years BCE) midden at Five Mile Rapids near The Dalles, Oregon. [cite journal
last =Miller
first =Loye
title =Bird Remains from a Prehistoric Cave Deposit in Grant County, New Mexico
journal =Condor
volume =59
issue =1
pages =59–63
year =1957
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-03
doi =10.2307/1364617

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". [cite journal
last =Howard
first =Hildegarde
title =Limb measurements of the extinct vulture, "Coragyps occidentalis"
journal =Papers of the Archaeological Society of New Mexico
volume =1
year =1968
pages =115–127
] 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. [cite journal
last =Arroyo-Cabrales
first =Joaquin
coauthors =Johnson, Eileen & Guzman
title = Catálogo de los ejemplares tipo procedentes de la Cueva de San Josecito, Nuevo León, México ("Catalogue of the type specimens from San Josecito Cave, Nuevo León, Mexico")
journal =Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Geológicas
volume =20
issue =1
pages =79–93
year =2003
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-03
] 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.Citation| last = Fisher| first = Harvey L.| title = The Pterylosis of the Andean Condor | journal = Condor| volume = 44 | issue = 1| pages = 30–32| date = February| year = 1942| url =| doi = 10.2307/1364195] 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. [cite book| last =Allaby| first =Michael|title =The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Zoology| publisher =Oxford University Press| year =1992| location =Oxford, UK| pages =348| isbn = ISBN 0192860933] 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.cite book| last =Terres| first =J. K.| authorlink =John Kenneth Terres| title =The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds| publisher =Knopf| year =1980| location =New York, NY| pages = 959| isbn = 0394466519 ] 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. [cite journal
last =Hosner
first =Peter A
coauthors =Lebbin, Daniel J
title =Observations of plumage pigment aberrations of birds in Ecuador, including Ramphastidae
journal =Boletín de la Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología
volume =16
issue =1
pages = 30–42
year =2006
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-03

Distribution and habitat

The American Black Vulture has a Nearctic and Neotropic distribution. [cite book
last =Bull
first =John L
coauthors =Levine, Emanuel
title =Bull's Birds of New York State
publisher =Cornell University Press
year =1998
pages =138
url =
isbn = 0801434041
] Its range includes the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and most of South America. It is usually a permanent resident throughout its range, although birds at the extreme north of its range may migrate short distances, and others across their range may undergo local movements in unfavourable conditions. [Buckley, N. J. (1999). Black Vulture ("Coragyps atratus"). In "The Birds of North America", No. 411 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.] In South America, its range stretches to central Chile and Argentina.cite book
last =Hilty
first =Stephen L.
title =A Guide to the Birds of Colombia
publisher =Princeton University Press
year =1977
pages =88
url =
isbn =069108372X
] It also is found on the islands of the Caribbean. It prefers open land interspersed with areas of woods or brush. It is also found in moist lowland forests, shrublands and grasslands, wetlands and swamps, pastures, and heavily degraded former forests. Preferring lowlands, it is rarely seen in mountainous areas. It is usually seen soaring or perched on fence posts or dead trees.cite book
last =Peterson
first =Roger Tory
authorlink =Roger Tory Peterson
title =A Field Guide to Western Birds
publisher =Houghton Mifflin Field Guides
year =2001
pages =182
url =
isbn = 061813218X

Ecology and behavior

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.cite book
last =Robbins
first =C S.
coauthors =Bruun, B & Zim, H S
title =Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification
publisher =St. Martin's Press
year =2001
pages =66
url =
isbn =1582380902
] Its flight is less efficient than that of other vultures, as the wings are not as long, forming a smaller sail surface.cite book
last = Fergus, Charles
title =Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland Washington D.C.
publisher =Stackpole Books
year =2003
isbn = 0811728218
] 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.cite book
last =Feduccia
first =J. Alan
title =The Origin and Evolution of Birds
publisher =Yale University Press
year =1999
pages =116
url =
isbn =0226056414
] 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 , 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.cite web
title =All About Birds: Black Vulture
publisher =Cornell Lab of Ornithology
year =2003
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-04

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.


.cite book
last =Reader's Digest Editors
title =Book Of North American Birds
publisher =Reader's Digest
year =2005
pages =11
url =
isbn =0895773511
] In areas populated by humans, it may scavenge at garbage dumps, but also takes eggs and decomposing plant material and can kill or injure new-born or incapacitated mammals. Like other vultures, it plays an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease. The American Black Vulture locates food either by sight or by following New World Vultures of the genus "Cathartes" to carcasses. These vultures—the Turkey Vulture, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture— forage by smell, an ability which is uncommon in the avian world. They fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals.cite book
last =Muller-Schwarze
first =Dietland
title =Chemical Ecology of Vertebrates
publisher =Cambridge University Press
year =2006
isbn = 0521363772
] Their heightened ability to detect odors allows them to search for carrion below the forest canopy.cite book
last = Snyder, Noel F. R. and Helen Snyder
title =Raptors of North America: Natural History and Conservation
publisher =Voyageur Press
year =2006
isbn = 0760325820
] King Vultures and American Black Vultures, which lack the ability to smell carrion, follow them to carcasses.cite journal
last =Gomez, LG; Houston, DC; Cotton, P; Tye, A
title = The role of greater yellow-headed vultures Cathartes melambrotus as scavengers in neotropical forest
journal = Ibis
volume =136
issue =2
pages =193–196
publisher =
location =
year =1994
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-03
doi = 10.1111/j.1474-919X.1994.tb01084.x
] It is aggressive when feeding, and may chase the slightly larger Turkey Vulture from carcasses.

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. [cite web
last =Paulik
first =Laurie
title =Vultures and Livestock
publisher =AgNIC Wildlife Damage Management Web
date =2007-08-06
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-15


The timing of American Black Vultures' breeding season varies with the latitude at which they live. In the United States, birds in Florida begin breeding as early as January, for example, while those in Ohio generally do not start before March.cite book
last= Ferguson-Lees
first= James
coauthors= David A. Christie
title = Raptors of the World
publisher= Christopher Helm
location= London
year= 2001
pages= 306
isbn= 0-7136-8026-1
] In South America, Argentinian and Chilean birds begin egg-laying as early as September, while those further north on the continent typically wait until October. Some in South America breed even later than that—American Black Vultures in Trinidad typically do not start until November, for example, and those in Ecuador may wait until February. Pairs are formed following a courtship ritual which is performed on the ground: several males circle a female with their wings partially open as they strut and bob their heads. They sometimes perform courtship flights, diving or chasing each other over their chosen nest site.

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.cite book
last =Harrison, Hal H.
title =A Field Guide to Western Birds' Nests
publisher =Houghton Mifflin Field
year =1979
pages =33
url =
ibsn= 0618164375
] 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.

Relationship with humans

The American Black Vulture is considered a threat by cattle ranchers due to its predation on newborn cattle. [cite web
last =Milleson
first =Michael P.
coauthors =Stephanie P. Shwiff and Michael L. Avery
title =Vulture-Cattle Interactions – A Survey of Florida Ranchers
publisher =University of California, Davis
year =2006
url =
work =Proceedings, 22nd Vertebrate Pest Conference
accessdate = 2007-12-09
] The droppings produced by American Black Vultures and other vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. [cite web
last =Paulik
first =Laurie
title =Vultures
publisher =AgNIC Wildlife Damage Management Web
date =2007-08-06
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-15
] 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,cite web
title =Birds Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
publisher =US Fish & Wildlife Service
url =
accessdate =2007-10-14
] by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada,cite web
title = Game and Wild Birds: Preservation
work= US Code Collection
publisher =Cornell Law School
url =
accessdate =2007-10-29
] 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.cite web
title = Migratory Bird Treaty Act
work=US Code Collection
publisher =Cornell Law School
url =
accessdate =2007-10-14
] 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.cite web
title = "Coragyps atratus"
work=2007 IUCN Red List
publisher =BirdLife International
url =
accessdate =2007-11-03

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. cite book | last = Tozzer| first =Alfred Marston | coauthors =Glover Morrill Allen| title =Animal Figures in the Maya Codices| publisher =Harvard University| year =1910| url =]

This vulture has appeared on two stamps, that of Guyana in 1990 and Nicaragua in 1994.cite web | title =Black Vulture| author= | publisher =Bird Stamps | url = | accessdate = 2007-11-07]


External links

* [ American Black Vulture video from the Internet Bird Collection]
* [ American Black Vulture photo gallery from VIREO]
* [ American Black Vulture video footage]
* [ Photography showing the skeletal structure of the American Black Vulture]

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