Black vultures are amongst the most abundant vultures of the New World, and out of all the members in the Cathartidae family, have the most varied diet. These birds have featherless black to dark gray heads and necks. When perched they appear black overall, however near the wingtips are conspicuous white patches that are clearly visible when they are flying. These are highly social birds that demonstrate fierce family loyalty. They will share food with their relatives, feeding their young for months after fledging. Their lifespan is 10 years on average, and the longest banded individual has lived up to 25.6 years.
Black vultures live in tropical and temperate zones from southern Canada to the south of South America, including continental parts of the U.S. In the north of their range they migrate south in the fall, returning in spring. They prefer an open habitat, avoiding dense forests where they can, such habitats including lowlands with adjacent highlands, desert terrain, open fields, rubbish dumps, and rural or urban centers.
Black vultures have a quick labored flight which consists of several flaps of the wings then a short glide. They hunt by sight, not smell, usually late in the day and soaring high, riding thermals upwards, only flapping their wings now and again. They are more aggressive than the other scavengers on arrival at an animal carcass and so effectively drive other animals off, especially Turkey vultures. Usually vultures are silent, though they may hiss, grunt, and make low barking sounds while fighting over food. These birds are very social, forming flocks for foraging and roosting in large numbers, and forming family units with their immediate kin and extended family. When startled, a Black vulture will regurgitate just eaten food so that it can take off to fly.
Black vultures are carnivores and mainly scavengers, eating the carcasses of large animals, and sometimes small dead mammals. They also kill baby herons in nesting colonies, and eat domestic ducks, newborn calves, small birds and mammals, eggs, opossums, skunks, ripe or rotten vegetables or fruit and young turtles.
Black vultures are monogamous and pairs mate for life. They engage in aerial courtship displays with circling flight, chasing, and then spiraling down. A pair may also display while together on a perch: they spread their wings and jump into the air while making yapping noises. These birds roost at communal roosts in large numbers. In the southern part of their range breeding may begin as early as January, while breeding in the north is from March to June. A black vulture does not build a nest but uses a natural cavity such as a cave, rock crevice, tree or hollow log. 2 eggs are laid and are incubated by both parents for 38 to 45 days, each taking a turn every day. Both parents feed the chicks by regurgitating liquefied food, until when they are two weeks old, they give them solid food. The chicks fledge when they are 10 to 14 weeks old and depend on their parents for up to 8 months. They then forage in a family group until the following breeding season.
The main threats to this species include: collision with buildings and vehicles, electrocution, poisoning meant for vermin, illegal shooting, leg traps, and lead poisoning from ingesting pellets and bullet fragments in the carcasses of game animals that are not retrieved by hunters.
The All About Birds resource records the total Black vulture breeding population as being about 20 million individuals, about 9% of these living in North America and 8% in Mexico. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.
Black vultures play an important role in the environment as ecological sentinels. In addition to removing dead animals, vultures recycle nutrients that are used by plants.