Look up to the sky in East Brunswick on almost any day and huge black birds can often be seen soaring overhead. These are Turkey vultures and Black vultures. The Turkey vultures far outnumber the Black vultures but both can often be found with a bit of searching. The vultures also perch on the large antenna tower at the old Turnpike Authority building where Route 18 meets the NJ Turnpike, sometimes by the dozens. Both birds are big, really big...The Turkey vulture has a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet and the Black vulture, 4.5 to 5.5 feet.
Telling the two species apart is fairly easy. The Turkey vulture has a red head and the Black vulture has a grayish- black head (although immature Turkey vultures also have a grayish-black head). In flight while soaring they are also easy to separate. The Turkey vulture holds its wings in a slightly elevated "V" known as a dihedral and tends to rock back and forth as it glides on air currents without flapping much. The Black vulture holds its wings flat and flaps much more often. From beneath, the Turkey vulture wings also look half gray from the body to the wing tips, while the Black vulture wings have tips that look like they were dipped in gray paint.
Both birds are nature's garbage disposals, scavenging for dead and rotting animals for food. While they will eat a wide variety of foods, soft rotting stinking putrid dead animals are really the first choice. They find these food sources by flying around and using a very powerful sense of smell and excellent eyesight. Their olfactory sense is so well-developed that they apparently can detect the gases that are given off by a rotting animal from many hundreds of feet in the air. Both vultures have heads without feathers (The red and black color is actually skin). The lack of feathers is thought to be an adaptation to prevent pathogens from getting on the birds as they stick their heads in rotting decomposing animal carcasses. They are extremely effective at finding dead animals, both large and small and can pick them clean right down to the bones in a short period of time. Without vultures we would have many more slowly rotting dead animals around, so they are quite beneficial in this respect. So, keep an eye to the sky for our big black birds as they soar overhead looking for a tasty meal of rotting, putrid, maggot-filled dead animals. And know that for every one they find, it's one less gag-inducing dead animal we need to dispose of.