Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus, Zopilote Común (Spanish), Boox pool ch’com (Maya)

High in the sky large birds circle Mérida every day. Since Mérida lacks skyscrapers, why would a tourist need to look up to the sky? If one did search the azure space, one could guess that eagles or hawks soared above the city. If a visitor learned those stealthy gliders were Black Vultures, often called buzzards in the US, would that information change the perception of the viewer?

Those raptors are Mérida’s frequent fliers, the Black Vulture. Their range varies from the USA down to southern South America. Each exhibits black plumage, a wrinkly, almost featherless, blackish head, a five foot wingspan, and whitish legs that remind me of go-go boots. From underneath the Black Vulture shows black wings with silvery gray outer tips, a quick way to identify it…if one looks up.

Flocks roost on top of Mérida’s buildings or city trees while others select transmission towers, trees near garbage dumps or along roadsides throughout their range. When the early morning air warms up, they begin their aerial ballet on thermals searching by sight for roadkill, animal carcasses in open areas in the landscape, and sometimes they may kill newborn livestock or young birds. Often they forage with their immediate family and relatives. Studies show they may soar with the larger, red-headed, Turkey Vulture, who locates prey by smell. Once the “gore-met” meal is found, the Black Vultures force away the Turkey Vulture.

The state of Yucatán is home to four vulture species, the two aforementioned, the King Vulture, and the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. Somehow many people have lost civility toward nature’s clean-up crew, but this does not apply to the Maya or other ancient peoples in Central and South America.

The ancient Maya viewed vultures as important entities in their daily lives. As a symbol of cleansing and renewal, these birds could transform death to life. Vultures are common figures illustrated in hieroglyphs, the few remaining Maya codices (Maya books), ceramics, and in myths. In one tale, vultures circle the Maya fields like a guardian angel of the crops. In the slash and burn methods to prepare land for raising crops, Elizabeth P. Benson in her paper, “The Vulture: The Sky and the Earth” states a parallel between the fire clearing the fields and the sky vulture clearing putrid flesh from the earth’s surface.

Maybe people today should “carry on” about this carrion eater, a contributor to a healthy ecosystem.

The Black Vulture lacks a voice box but it can hiss and grunt.

Nature’s wonders inspire Cherie Pittillo, a wildlife photographer, zoologist, and author. Follow her friendly, feathered journey as she discovers the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Editorial and Photography by Cherie Pittillo for use in Yucatán Today

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