Vultures Circling in the Sky Doesn't Mean What You Probably Think It Means

tungstenblue/Getty Images
tungstenblue/Getty Images

Why do buzzards circle endlessly above carrion? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Stefan Pociask, Veteran, Wildlife research/rehab, Engineer, on Quora:

As far as vultures are concerned, their absolute favorite scenario is when they are flying around above the desert and they see a cowboy or desperado sitting in the sand, with his back against a big boulder. There is usually a trail in the sand, where he was crawling for the last half mile, and an empty canteen that was discarded a mile before that.

This is where the vultures gather together upon seeing this and they circle round and round and round, above the desperado below, waiting for him to take his last breath, so they can go in and feast. At some point, the poor guy will look up in the sky, and with one of his last breaths, he will yell out into the sky at the circling vultures, cursing them… “I’m not dead yet!!! Damn you!!!” This is accompanied by either a clenched fist, or a middle finger directed at the circling, somber undertakers above him. Death is near, and they all know it. And the patience of vultures is legendary.

The other scenario is that someone goes out looking for that cowboy. They see a bunch of vultures circling way off in the distance, and they then know it’s too late. He must be dead already, and he’s right underneath those circling vultures. So it will be easy to find his body. Again, this scenario is legendary. 

In fact, all of this is so legendary that many people don’t realize that it’s not legendary at all… it’s just a legend! Pure, unadulterated horse puckie.

Vultures don’t, in fact, circle above dead things. And they most certainly do not circle above dying things; patiently waiting for the dying thing to curse at them and then fall dead so they can go and eat it.

If you see vultures circling way up high in the sky, nine times out of ten they haven’t found anything yet! They are “just looking.” It means they have found a nice strong thermal of warm air rising from the Earth, and they, like surfers catching a wave, are riding it high, effortlessly gliding on the powerful updraft of warm air. Chances are, if it’s a bunch of vultures, there will be at least one red-headed Turkey Vulture at the lowest level, sniffing while it glides, hoping to catch a whiff of a dead animal. This Turkey Vulture will be covering some area, searching with its powerful sense of smell. Meanwhile, their cousins, the Black Vultures, will be several hundred, or more, feet above the Turkey Vulture, quite often just killing time and circling in one place, keeping an eye on the Turkey Vulture below who is doing all the actual searching and the work. The bunch of Black Vultures are kind of in the waiting room, if you see a flock circling. They don’t have to cover any ground. They just watch their cousin, below. Once the Turkey Vulture sniffs out a corpse and goes down to eat, the much more aggressive Black Vultures go down after it and chase him away so they can eat first. Turkey gets the leftovers.

If there is no Turkey Vulture around, the Black Vultures have to hunt by sight, which is much, much harder for them. In those cases, they will circle above wide open places where a dead animal may be easy to spot. But once they see a potential meal, they don’t waste any time circling. They go down to investigate immediately. Ground based scavengers will usually find these dead animals first. But that’s okay, because Black Vultures also recognize gatherings of ground scavengers and will occasionally circle above while a pack of coyotes or dogs gorge themselves. Some will take a chance and try to feed alongside the ground scavengers, but this is dangerous. So, many will circle above, waiting, while others land on the ground near-by, waiting for their chance to sprint over on foot as soon as it’s safe.

Those are the three scenarios of what’s most likely going on when you see circling vultures. They are either waiting for a Turkey Vulture to sniff out food, and just killing time, or they are searching by sight, or they are waiting for a larger, perhaps dangerous, predator or scavenger on the ground to finish eating. But they will never just circle above perfectly good food for no reason. Very rarely, something will be even too putrid for a vulture to eat. But even so, they will go and check it out.

Oh wait… I was reminded of another possibility. Natural gas has an additive in it that will be interpreted by a Turkey Vulture as being from a corpse. When looking for a leak in a gas pipeline, the repair team will often look for circling Turkey Vultures above the pipe.

And… one more possibility: If a flock of vultures is so enormous that all the birds can’t possibly get in to get a bite, the remainder may, in fact, take back to the sky and circle above the rest of the birds who are feasting. They won’t waste their time on the ground if they know they won’t get any food. This may be the most common reason, if you see a very large group circling. These large groups of circling vultures may be called “kettles”. Nevertheless, they will keep an eye on the feast, just in case there is an opening.

So aside from the exceptions I just noted, circling vultures is just Hollywood concocted misinformation. Vultures don’t endlessly circle carrion without landing.

Here is a beautiful guide to telling the two main New World Vultures apart as they circle overhead. You probably won’t be able to see the red head of the Turkey Vulture way up high, above your head. But the white stripe along the full length of its wing underside is unmistakable. The Black Vulture, on the other hand, has a big block of white only at the end of the wing underside. Next time you see them in the sky, see if you can pick out which is which. Now you’ll be able to impress that next date you have, when you point out and identify the vultures the two of you see in the sky!

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