Florida (Fl) is a superb birding destination. Situated in the southeastern United States, the Sunshine State offers plenty of habitats, including expansive grasslands, pine forests, wetlands, marshes, and a vast coastline. The location and habitat diversity result in a bird list of almost 550 species.
The state is home to many protected areas. The best birding locations include the famous Everglades National Park, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Fort De Soto Park, and Disney Wilderness Preserve, to name a few.
Many species are rare vagrants, but areas like the subtropical south hold onto many unique resident species. The warm climate and varied topography of the landscape make Florida the perfect place for raptors to thrive. None thrive more so in the state than vultures. Three vultures occur in North America, and two are found in Florida.
The New World vultures belong to the Cathartidae family. Vultures are fascinating birds with strange looks and some interesting adaptations. They don’t have a syrinx (the vocal organ), so they can only hiss and growl. Their bald heads are an adaption that prevents the feathers from being dirtied by flesh and blood while they scavenge inside carcasses.
They are essential cleaners of the environment as they have highly acidic stomach acids that kill bacteria that carry diseases such as anthrax, cholera, and botulism and prevent them from spreading.
The two vultures of Florida will be described further below, and we will indicate where they are found.
These Are The 2 Vultures that You Can See in Florida
1. Turkey Vulture
- Scientific name – Cathartes aura
- Lifespan – 16 years (average), 23 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 25.2 to 31.9 in (64 to 81 cm)
- Weight – 28.2 to 84.7 oz (800 to 2400 g)
- Wingspan – 66.9 to 70.1 in (170 to 178 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Turkey Vulture is a huge bird of prey with long wings and a relatively long tail. They have a two-toned underwing with greyish flight feathers and a dark forewing. On the rest of the body, the upperside is dark brown, the underside is black, and the under tail is greyish.
The bare head is red, the beak is pale, and the legs are pale. Immature birds look like adults with reddish heads and a pale part of the beak. Juveniles are black overall, with the same two-toned underwing as the adults, and the bare head is greyish.
Turkey Vultures make hisses, usually low-pitched and guttural, at carcasses. In flight, you may hear them make a whine.
Turkey Vultures don’t create proper nests. Instead, they make a depression in sand, debris, leaves, or other plant material. They typically nest under ledges, in thickets, caves, burrows, rock crevices, hollow logs, large abandoned nests, dead trees, and deserted buildings. They may use the same nesting site for many years in a row.
Females lay one to three eggs in a clutch. The eggs are incubated for 28 to 40 days, and the nestlings remain in the nest for an additional 60 to 84 days.
Turkey Vultures feed exclusively on carrion. Mammals are their primary source of carrion, but they also feed on birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some invertebrates.
Turkey vultures are not considered to be of conservation concern. Their population in North America has been increasing at approximately 1.8% annually since 1966. The total breeding population is estimated to comprise 28 million individuals.
Historically, they were indirectly affected by DDT, but they have recovered well and are one of the most common raptors in North America today. Threats they face include lead poisoning and other poisonings from dead animals that were poisoned or shot. More minor threats include trapping and killing out of fear.
Where to Find Turkey Vultures
Turkey Vultures remain all year round in Florida, where they are common across the state. In winter, migratory birds from the north enter the state, and the species is seen more frequently at that time of the year. Like other vultures, they frequent open areas such as farmland, rangeland, and forests.
They are most commonly seen along roadsides and at landfill sites. They often roost communally, so look out for large flocks in secluded spots on trees and rocks.
They are found at multiple locations, including Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Everglades National Park, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Disney Wilderness Preserve, and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Black Vulture
- Scientific name – Coragyps atratus
- Lifespan – 10 years (average), 25 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 23.6 to 26.8 in (60 to 68 cm)
- Weight – 56.4 to 77.6 oz (1600 to 2200 g)
- Wingspan – 53.9 to 59.1 in (137 to 150 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Black Vulture is a large, compact bird of prey with broad wings and a short tail. They are almost entirely sooty black, other than the silvery-white wingtips. They have a bare blackish-grey head, while the legs and beak are pale. Immature and juvenile birds are duller than adults.
This species is primarily silent, but they do make a raspy hiss at carcasses.
Black Vultures do not make a nest, they lay their eggs on the ground in a depression. The eggs are usually laid on sand or debris in caves, hollow trees, thickets, stumps, and abandoned buildings that contain cavities for cover. They reuse the same nesting sites for many years.
Each female lays one to three eggs in a clutch. The incubation period is 38 to 39 days, and the nestling period is 70 to 98 days.
They mainly feed on carrion, but they sometimes kill live animals. Mammals are their main carrion prey, including raccoons, opossums, coyotes, skunks, armadillos, hogs, donkeys, and cattle. They sometimes feed on chickens and fish. In terms of live prey, they eat skunks, pigs, lambs, calves of livestock, opossums, turtle hatchlings, and night herons.
The Black Vulture is a species of low conservation concern. They have had an increasing population trend since 1966 of around 3.4% per year. The number of breeding individuals is estimated to comprise 190 million.
Historically, fear grew about vultures carrying diseases, so they were trapped, shot, and poisoned. Car collisions, nesting site reduction, DDT, and lead poisoning also threaten them. They have recovered well and expanded their range in the north.
Where to Find Black Vultures
Black Vultures occur throughout the year in Florida. They occur in all parts of the state and inhabit open areas, forests, and semirural suburbs. They are regularly seen on roadsides and at dumps or landfill sites. In the early morning, look for them on trees and other structures where they roost.
While they can easily be seen in many locations, some of the best places are Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Big Cypress National Preserve, Myakka River State Park, Fort De Soto Park, and Honeymoon Island State Park.
The Sunshine State hosts various bird species, including two vultures. The Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture are both very numerous in the state, and you have an excellent chance of seeing one during your visit to the state, no matter where you are located.
Vultures are often seen riding thermals in groups. They are sometimes seen in mixed-species flocks as they scour the ground for any recently dead animals using their superb vision and sense of smell. Of the two species mentioned in this article, the Turkey Vulture has a far superior sense of smell.
The two species are often seen together, as the Black Vultures exploit the Turkey Vultures by following them down to a carcass before they scare their larger counterparts away by being more aggressive. They then congregate around the carcass to feed. Vultures are not the prettiest birds, but they are some of the most important birds.
They clean up animal remains that could host potentially dangerous bacteria that carry anthrax, cholera, and botulism. That is one of the main reasons why it is good news that the two vultures in Florida are of low conservation concern. These vulture populations have been increasing, possibly due to the increase in the number of road kills.