By Wilson Lutz
Vultures are often described as Nature’s undertakers. No mess on the highway seems too repugnant for a vulture to dine on. Here in North America, vultures are represented by three species: the turkey vulture, the black vulture and the California condor. Genetic evidence places the vultures in close relation to the stork family although our intuition might have placed them closer to the hawks and eagles. Our common vulture in northern Indiana is the turkey vulture. Historically, the slightly smaller black vulture, Coragyps atratus, seldom ventured much farther north than the extreme southern part of the state along the Ohio River. The black vulture and the turkey vulture are easily differentiated. The turkey vulture’s head and neck are naked and red, whereas the black vulture’s head and neck are naked and black. Also, the black vulture has large whitish patches near the wing tips, a feature that is absent in the turkey vulture. The wing span is about four and a half feet. Black vultures do more wing flapping than turkey vultures. Black vultures make their nests on the ground. The usual clutch is one to three greenish colored eggs variously marked by purple splotches. The eggs require approximately six weeks to hatch. To conserve energy, black vultures lower their metabolic rate during the night. At dawn, they spread their wings toward the rising sun to absorb heat and regain their normal body temperatures.
The original terrain of the black vulture was the southern United States from the east coast to the west as far as Texas. In Indiana, they were seldom seen north of the Ohio River. Formerly, the only location in Indiana where they could be found dependably was the Clifty Falls State Park area on the north bank of the Ohio River. With global warming now in progress, black vultures are being seen farther north including the Lake Monroe area and the area around Bloomington. In fact, they are becoming persona non grata. Some farmers have found that black vultures sometimes kill and devour newborn calves. Also, it seems that the birds have a well developed instinct to pick and peck at anything made of black rubber. Windshield wipers on automobiles or rubber seals around car windows are fair game. They have even ripped away rubber roofing seals on utility buildings. Like other birds, black vulture reproduction was severely compromised by the widespread use of DDT during the middle of the last century. Now that DDT is no longer in use, the black vulture has rebounded well. Federal law prohibits killing black vultures without a permit. The permit costs $50 and is not easy to obtain.
If climate warming continues, we in our area will soon be able to add the black vulture to our northern lndiana birding lists. They will also help us keep our roads free of carrion.