BLACK VULTURE, OR CARRION CROW.
CATHARTES ATRATUS, Wilson.
PLATE III.--MALE AND FEMALE.
This bird is a constant resident in all our southern States, extends far up
the Mississippi, and continues the whole year in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois,
and even in the State of Ohio as far as Cincinnati. Along the Atlantic coast it
is, I believe, rarely seen farther east than Maryland. It seems to give a
preference to maritime districts, or the neighbourbood of water. Although shy
in the woods, it is half domesticated in and about our cities and villages,
where it finds food without the necessity of using much exertion. Charleston,
Savannah, New Orleans, Natchez, and other cities, are amply provided with these
birds, which may be seen flying or walking about the streets the whole day in
groups. They also regularly attend the markets and shambles, to pick up the
pieces of flesh thrown away by the butchers, and, when an opportunity occurs,
leap from one bench to another, for the purpose of helping themselves. Hundreds
of them are usually found, at all hours of the day, about the slaughterhouses,
which are their favourite resort. They alight on the roofs and chimney-tops,
wherever these are not guarded by spikes or pieces of glass, which, however,
they frequently are, for the purpose of preventing the contamination by their
ordure of the rain water, which the inhabitants of the southern States collect
in tanks, or cisterns, for domestic use. They follow the carts loaded with
offal or dead animals to the places in the suburbs where these are deposited,
and wait the skinning of a cow or horse, when in a few hours they devour its
flesh, in the company of the dogs, which are also accustomed to frequent such
places. On these occasions they fight with each other, leap about and tug in
all the hurry and confusion imaginable, uttering a harsh sort of hiss or runt,
which may be heard at a distance of several hundred yards. Should eagles make
their appearance at such a juncture, the Carrion Crows retire, and patiently
wait until their betters are satisfied, but they pay little regard to the dogs.
When satiated, they rise together, should the weather be fair mount high in the
air, and perform various evolutions, flying in large circles, alternately
plunging and rising, until they at length move off in a straight direction, or
alight on the dead branches of trees, where they spread out their wings and tail
to the sun or the breeze. In cold and wet weather they assemble round the
chimney-tops, to receive the warmth imparted by the smoke. I never heard of
their disgorging their food on such occasions, that being never done unless when
they are feeding their young, or when suddenly alarmed or caught. In that case,
they throw up the contents of their stomach with wonderful quickness and power.
The Carrion Crows of Charleston resort at night to a swampy wood across the
Ashley river, about two miles from the city. I visited this roosting place in
company with my friend JOHN BACHMAN, approaching it by a close thicket of
undergrowth, tangled with vines and briars. When nearly under the trees on
which the birds were roosted, we found the ground destitute of vegetation, and
covered with ordure and feathers, mixed with the broken branches of the trees.
The stench was horrible. The trees were completely covered with birds, from the
trunk to the very tips of the branches. They were quite unconcerned; but,
having determined to send them the contents of our guns, and firing at the same
instant, we saw most of them fly off, hissing, grunting, disgorging, and looking
down on their dead companions as if desirous of devouring them. We kept up a
brisk fusilade for several minutes, when they all flew off to a great distance
high in the air; but as we retired, we observed them gradually descending and
settling on the same trees. The piece of ground was about two acres in extent,
and the number of Vultures we estimated at several thousands. During very wet
weather, they not unfrequently remain the whole day on the roost; but when it is
fine, they reach the city every morning by the first glimpse of day.
The flight of this species, although laboured, is powerful and protracted.
Before rising from the ground they are obliged to take several leaps, which they
do in an awkward sidelong manner. Their flight is continued by flappings,
repeated eight or ten times, alternating with sailings of from thirty to fifty
yards. The wings are disposed at right angles to the body, and the feet
protrude beyond the tail, so as to be easily seen. In calm weather they may be
heard passing over you at the height of forty or fifty yards, so great is the
force with which they beat the air. When about to alight, they allow their legs
to dangle beneath, the better to enable them to alight.
They feed on all sorts of flesh, fresh or putrid, whether of quadrupeds or
birds, as well as on fish. I saw a great number of them eating a dead shark
near the wharf at St. Augustine in East Florida; and I observed them many times
devouring young cormorants and herons in the nest, on the keys bordering that
The Carrion Crow and Turkey-Buzzard possess great power of recollection, so
as to recognise at a great distance a person who has shot at them, and even the
horse on which he rides. On several occasions I have observed that they would
fly off at my approach, after I had trapped several, when they took no notice of
other individuals; and they avoided my horse in the pastures, after I had made
use of him to approach and shoot them.
At the commencement of the love season, which is about the beginning of
February, the gesticulation and parade of the males are extremely ludicrous.
They first strut somewhat in the manner of the Turkey Cock, then open their
wings, and, as they approach the female, lower their head, its wrinkled skin
becoming, loosened, so as entirely to cover the bill, and emit a puffing sound,
which is by no means musical. When these actions have been repeated five or six
times, and the conjugal compact sealed, the "happy pair" fly off, and remain
together until their young come abroad. These birds form no nest, and
consequently never breed on trees; the hollow of a prostrate log, or the
excavation of a bank of earth, suffices for them. They never lay more than two
eggs, which are deposited on the bare ground; they are about three inches in
length, rather pointed at the smaller end, thick in the shell, with a pure white
ground, marked towards the greater ends with large irregular dashes of black and
dark brown. Twenty-one days are required for hatching them. The male and
female sit by turns, and feed each other. The young are at first covered with a
light cream-coloured down, and have an extremely uncouth appearance. They are
fed by regurgitation, almost in the same manner as pigeons, and are abundantly
supplied with food. When fledged, which is commonly about the beginning of
June, they follow their parents through the woods. At this period, their head
is covered with feathers to the very mandibles. The plumage of this part
gradually disappears, and the skin becomes wrinkled; but they are not in full
plumage till the second year. During the breeding season, they frequent the
cities less, those remaining at that time being barren birds, of which there
appear to be a good number. I believe that the individuals which are no longer
capable of breeding, spend all their time in and about the cities, and roost on
the roofs and chimneys. They go out, in company with the Turkey-Buzzards, to
the yards of the hospitals and asylums, to feed on the remains of the provisions
cooked there, which are as regularly thrown out to them.
I have represented a pair of Carrion Crows or Black Vultures in full
plumage, engaged with the head of our Common Deer,
the Cervus virginianus.
BLACK VULTURE or CARRION CROW, Vultur atratus, Wils. Amer. Orn.,
vol. ix. p. 104.
CATHARTES IOTA, Bonap. Syn., p. 23.
BLACK VULTURE or CARRION CROW, Cathartes Iota, Nuttall, Man.,
vol. i. p. 46.
BLACK VULTURE or CARRION CROW, Aud., vol. ii. p. 33; vol. v. p. 345.
CATHARTES ATRATUS, BLACK VULTURE, Swains. & Rich., F. Bor. Amer.,
vol. ii. p. 6.
Bill elongated, rather stout, straight at the base, slightly compressed;
the upper mandible covered to the middle by the cere, broad, curved, and acute
at the end, the edge doubly undulated. Nostrils medial, approximate, linear,
pervious. Head elongated, neck longish, body robust. Feet strong; tarsus
roundish, covered with small rhomboidal scales; toes scutellate above, the
middle one much longer, the lateral nearly equal, second and third united at the
base by a web. Claws arched, strong, rather obtuse.
Plumage rather compact, with ordinary lustre. The head and upper part of
the neck are destitute of feathers, having a black, rugose, carunculated skin,
sparsely covered with short hairs, and downy behind. Wings ample, long, the
first quill rather short, third and fourth longest. Tail longish, even, or very
slightly emarginated at the end, of twelve broad, straight feathers.
Bill greyish-yellow at the end, dusky at the base, as is the corrugated
skin of the head and neck. Iris reddish-brown. Feet yellowish-grey; claws
black. The general colour of the plumage is dull-black, slightly glossed with
blue; the primary quills light brownish on the inside.
Length 26 inches; extent of wings 54; bill 2 1/2; tarsus 3 1/2; middle
The female resembles the male in external appearance, and is rather less.