Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

  • Order: Cathartiformes
  • Family: Cathartidae
  • Polytypic: 3 subspecies
  • Authors needed...


Distinguishing Characteristics

Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) have grayish bare heads and black plumage. They are medium sized soaring scavengers which fly with flattened wings (similar to eagles) and primary feathers strechted. When in flight, a white patch in the tip of the underwings can be seen from beneath.

Similar Species

It is often mistaken with other members of its family which are all big soaring birds. Their black body color is shared by all New World Vultures, with the sole exception of the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) which is grey-black when juvenile and predominantly white when adult (del Hoyo et al 1994).
Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) and California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are larger in size and heavier in weight, thus they are only confused with Black Vultures when flying in the distance. However, it is possible to distinguish them by their flying behavior even when there are no size references in the sky. Given that condors have higher wing-loading (McGahan 1973) they circle in thermals with a wider radius (Pennycuick 1973), which means that it takes longer for a condor to complete one ascending circle compared to a bird with lower wing-loading such as Black Vultures. Additionally, the heavier the bird, the more costly it is to perform active flight by flapping (Pennycuick 1973). Therefore, condors will seldom flap their wings, even less than the other cathartids.
The characteristics that set them apart from the species of the Cathartes genus are several. In flight, they are recognized by their shorter tail and their white patch at the tip of their underwings. Turkey Vultures and other related vultures typically fly in a V-shape (wings bent slightly upwards) and rock from side to side, whereas Black Vultures hold their wings flat and have a steadier flight (Buckley 1999). When perched or standing, Black Vultures can be set apart for their more upright posture, longer neck and black head (although juveniles from other species also have dark-colored heads) (Buckley 1999, Ferguson Lees and Christie 2001).

Detailed Description

Monomorphic: males and females show no overall differences in size or appearance.

Black Vultures present an all-black plumage with whitish patches on the tip of the under-wings, and white shafts on primary wing-feathers. They have bare gray heads and long slender bill which becomes white at the tip in adults.
Chicks are covered in brown down and fledglings are still recognizable for traces of down under the new plumage and on head. Immature still has a blacker head than adults, less wrinkled and dark-tipped bill (Ferguson Lees and Christie 2001).

Bare Parts

Following Buckley 1999:

Eyes. Dark brown iris.

Beak. Black with ivory tip in adults. All black in juvenile birds.

Legs and feet. Dark colored, grey tinted. May be white coated by feces.

Recommended Citation

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: