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In This Place

Obscure Vultures on The Outer Cape

Judy Gallagher / flickr /

I began this unseasonably warm writing day enjoying a flock of amorous Eastern Bluebirds singing their way through my yard, battling for females and checking out bird boxes. Their perusal of my nest box real estate doesn’t mean much this early, but still served as a nice spring pick me up after some recent wintry weather. But there’s no question that this time of year, before the great greening brought by spring, before the songbirds return and nesting season breathes new life, literally, into the landscape, is still a time of death in the animal world. 


So for the second week in a row, one of those flying merchants of death, the vultures, feature prominently in my report. This time, its the rare and relatively obscure Black Vulture.

On Saturday, February 29, many birders were out and about on the Outer Cape, perhaps looking to pad their Leap Day list. Two different gaggles of young birders, which in birding means under 60, were patrolling Provincetown when they made an unprecedented sighting – a flock of 11 Black Vultures circling near the Provincetown Monument. One Black Vulture is still considered a rare sighting, and the previous high count for the Cape was 3. Two of the astonished birders watched as this enormous flock landed on the big, white water tower in town, where they were able to snap some photos.


Black Vultures were historically a bird of Central and South America, where they are still among the commonest birds near human settlements, but have been marching steadily north for a couple of hundred years. The first Black Vulture was sighted in Massachusetts in 1850, and a century and a half later they are still considered rare. Norman Smith confirmed the state’s first nest in the Blue Hills in 1998, and since then they have become somewhat established around livestock farms in the Westport/Dartmouth area as well as southwestern Berkshire County, where they benefit from discarded carcasses. So you could say they have an “offal” diet. Don’t get me started on vulture puns, I could carrion all day…


Interestingly, Black Vultures lack the keen sense of smell that Turkey Vultures have, so they depend on their more olfactorially gifted cousins to help them find food. In areas where both species occur, the Black Vultures fly higher to keep an eye on the Turkey Vultures, then follow them to the carcasses. But my favorite Black Vulture fun fact dated back to when I worked in the Everglades in South Florida, where I used to watch them vandalizing cars in the national park by ripping the rubber seals from windshields and sunroofs, as well as dismantling wiper blades like they were practicing ripping tendons from bones. It apparently got so bad in recent years that the park provided people with tarps to protect their cars.


This big Leap Day flock from Provincetown is not an isolated incident – flocks of up to 5 Black Vultures have been around the Cape in recent weeks, including multiple sightings at a cemetery in Eastham, fittingly enough, and three hanging around the Bourne landfill in January. So if you want to see one of these trendy new vultures, what should you look for? Compared to the more expected Turkey Vulture, Black Vultures are black and dark gray from head to toe, giving them even more of a Grim Reaper vibe. They have shorter, forward-pointing wings with silvery tips, and they appear almost tail-less in flight, with a smaller head than a Turkey Vulture. The shorter wings force them to flap quicker, which when combined with the different shape, helps distinguish them from Turkey Vultures at great distances.


So keep an eye out for not one but two kinds of vultures patrolling for dead critters this late winter. If you do find some, and it seems like they are maybe paying too much attention to you, I’ll leave you with the same advice my little league coach used to give me – look alive out there.