Two Black Vultures and a Spooky Old Tree

Late this afternoon, on a cool, half-cloudy day, two Black Vultures sat together near the top of a crooked old oak that rose above an overgrown area of trees, shrubs, and weeds. The oak is one of the tallest of several in this small, scruffy patch of land between two subdivisions. The pair of vultures sat so close together their wings were touching. Big, strange black creatures with wrinkled gray heads and faces, they looked out of place, as if they might have drifted in and settled here by accident, from another world or time.

A few yards away from the tree in which they perched, there’s another old oak with a very large hole in the trunk that looks like it opens into a hollow space. This tree looks a lot like the Spooky Old Tree in a children’s book by Stan and Jan Berenstain that’s been one of my grandchildren’s favorites. I wondered if the vultures might be getting ready to nest in the hollow in its trunk. For several years now I have seen a pair of Black Vultures perched like this, in this same spot, about this time of year, and later in the spring and early summer have watched two and sometimes three in this area, perching together in a tree or on a utility pole, or even walking and pecking around on the ground together.

Black Vultures do not build a nest, but lay their eggs inside places like hollow trees or stumps, brush piles or abandoned buildings. Pairs may spend several weeks perching near a nest site before laying eggs. They are monogamous and a pair may stay together, year-round, for many years, and may return to the same nest site repeatedly for years. Black Vultures are known for maintaining strong social bonds with their families throughout their lives. They gather at night in large communal roost sites that appear to play an important role in their complex and extensive social life.*

Black Vultures are carrion eaters, and often are seen as sinister in appearance. When perched or standing on the ground, they look ungainly and awkward, but when soaring on a clear, sunny day – they are beautiful to watch, with broad, strong black wings with large white patches that flash silver in the sun. They usually seem to soar much higher and with more grace than their relatives, the Turkey Vultures.

A vulture’s perspective on life is clearly much different from our own, but it’s interesting to think about what this pair might be experiencing as they sit in this old tree, and to wonder whether they’ve returned here year after year. From where they sit, they can surely see the busy highway just on the other side of the field, as well as a good many cars, and people and dogs walking by on the closer road, not far away, including me.

This small patch of old oaks overgrown with weeds has become a smaller and smaller scrubby island over the past decade or two, now bounded on three sides by the streets and homes and manicured lawns of two subdivisions. So if the vulture pair has been nesting here for several years, they’ve seen a lot of changes.

* Neil J. Buckley. 1999. Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.




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