Vultures play an important part in the ecosystem by eating dead and decaying animals. This decreases the spread of diseases. Special enzymes in vultures’ digestive systems neutralize toxins and kill pathogens, allowing them to eat rotting meat without getting sick. Soaring high in the air on rising thermal currents, black vultures can spot distant carcasses. They also monitor lower-flying turkey vultures, who have a superior sense of smell and may sniff out carrion, leading the black vultures to a meal. The black vultures, traveling in large flocks, then drive off the turkey vultures.
Black vultures maintain close social ties with their extended families throughout their lives. They are monogamous and stay with their mates year round for many years. Black vultures do not build nests. Instead, they lay one to three eggs in tree cavities, hollow stumps, caves, abandoned buildings, or thickets. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for the next 38 to 39 days. They feed their babies for as long as eight months after they have fledged.
Black vultures fly with quick, strong wing beats followed by a short glide. Lacking voice boxes, their vocalizations are limited to hisses and grunts. Their habit of urinating down their legs allows them to cool the blood in their lower extremities, which helps regulate their body temperature. They have glossy black feathers, but their dark gray heads are featherless and wrinkled with narrow, sharply-hooked bills that are excellent for reaching deep into decaying carrion.
Black vultures are widespread across the southern U.S. (especially in the east), Mexico, Central America, and much of South America. Their range has expanded further north in the last few decades due to more plentiful roadkill and warmer temperatures due to climate change. Preferring lower elevations, they are not found in mountainous regions.
Like other vultures, these birds feed primarily on carrion. Occasionally, they may kill small live prey.
Body length is about two feet, and weight is about five pounds. Wingspan is roughly five feet. Average lifespan is estimated at 16 years, but some individuals have been known to live more than 25 years.