Black Vultures and Armadillos

Many thanks to our Facebook follower Angela Williams-Tribble for sharing with us her beautiful photos of a bald eagle and a black vulture dining on an armadillo at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Photo of black vulture, bald eagle and armadillo by Angela Williams-Tribble

Black vultures are the most numerous vultures in the Western hemisphere, though not as common in the U.S. as their cousins, turkey vultures, which are larger and have red heads. Black vultures lack the acute sense of smell that turkey vultures use in hunting, but they often let turkey vultures find a carcass, then join them (and even crowd them out) in feeding on it.

At one point the eagle tried to fly off with the armadillo, but it was too heavy. Photo by Angela Williams-Tribble

Look at the size of that talon. Photo by Angela Williams-Tribble

Because black vultures have no voice box, their vocalizations are limited to what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes as "raspy hisses and grunts." The oldest known vulture fossils go back 34 million years, so they've been hissing and grunting for a while now. It's amazing to think of the changes that vultures have experienced, adapted to and survived on the planet over those 34 million years (which is still just a blink of an eye in the 4.5-billion-year history of Earth).

And yes, there are armadillos in Florida. Competing stories attribute their arrival in the 1920s to everything from a circus truck that overturned and let two escape to a Marine who released his pet armadillos near Miami, but the tale that seems most firmly established claims that a pair escaped from a small zoo set up by Gus Edwards, the man who developed Cocoa Beach. Edwards had imported the nine-banded armadillos from Texas. All's that's known for sure is that Florida now has a lot of armadillos, which seems to suit the black vultures and bald eagles just fine. (More soon on the fascinating history of the armadillo.) —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood