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Is There a Difference Between a Vulture and a Buzzard?

Igor, a turkey vulture

Igor, a turkey vulture

Some people would call the handsome bird in the above photo a buzzard. Some would call him a vulture. Some would say "turkey buzzard" or "turkey vulture." Which term is right, and what's the difference between a vulture and buzzard?

It depends on whether you want to be technical or colloquial, and also where you live. This bird is officially called a Turkey Vulture. If you're in much of North America, you can call him a buzzard and almost everybody will know what kind of bird you're talking about. However, if you talk to somebody from England and mention a buzzard, he or she might think you're talking about a completely different bird.

Okay, so technically speaking, what's a vulture?

A vulture is a type of bird that eats primarily carrion. Vultures are large birds - even the smallest vulture species, the Hooded Vulture, has a wingspan of about 5 feet. There are seven species of New World vultures (vultures that live in the western hemisphere) and fifteen Old World vultures (those that live in the eastern hemisphere). As it turns out, New World and Old World vultures aren't closely related. Old World vultures are in the family Accipitridae, which puts them in the same group as hawks and eagles. New World vultures have their own family, Cathartidae, and some ornithologists believe they are more closely related to storks and herons than birds of prey.

Even though Old World and New World vultures have genetic differences, they are all considered vultures. This is because they have similar appearances (most have featherless heads and many have featherless necks as well), and they have the same ecological role as nature's clean up crew. They are all scavengers, which means they generally eat what's already dead rather than kill for food.

Then what's a buzzard?

"Buzzard" comes from "buteo," which is the genus name for several species of the type of bird North Americans call hawks. Buteo hawks are all fairly large raptors.

The Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, is native to Europe and Asia. However, there are Buteo species throughout much of the world. Several live in North America, such as Buteo jamaicensis (the Red-tailed Hawk), Buteo lineatus (the Red-shouldered Hawk), and Buteo platypterus (the Broad-winged Hawk). A visitor from Europe may refer to these birds as "buzzards" rather than hawks, because they are not technically "true hawks." True hawks are part of the genus Accipiter (such as Accipiter cooperii, the Cooper's Hawk).

Whether you call them buzzards or hawks, Buteos are true birds of prey. Unlike vultures, they have feathered heads and they hunt for and kill live prey, although they can and will eat carrion if it's available.

Why do some people refer to vultures as buzzards?

According to the Turkey Vulture Society, this probably goes back to the time of the colonists. England has no native vultures, so when the settlers arrived, they may have referred to any large soaring bird as a buzzard. The name stuck for turkey vultures, and now, hundreds of years later, the words "buzzard" and "vulture" are still often used as synonyms in American English.

However, just because the words are used as synonyms doesn't mean they always should be. If you use the wrong word around a biologist, ornithologist, or naturalist, you will probably make him or her cringe. Therefore, if you want to use the proper terminology, use the word "vulture" when talking about a scavenging bird with a sharp beak and a (usually) bald head, and "buzzard" when you're talking about a bird from the Buteo genus, such as the Common Buzzard.

Comments

Randolph P. Whitford on October 31, 2015:

This explanation of avian nomenclature is not only pithy, but the historical vignette describing how English colonists might naturally call vultures "buzzards" is very helpful. If vultures represent convergent evolution from a stork-like ancestor and Old World buzzard's closest kin are buteos, it seems only respectful not to clump them together. After all, were I a stork?, my pride would definitely demand the inclusion in MY family of S. America's King Vulture: one of the world's most intricately colorful and gorgeous beings! Much needed from my much maligned "ugly vulture group."

L.A.Sharp on July 27, 2015:

Me and my son , me 51 him 16 with a career future of paleontology we were pondering the difference in Buzzard and Vulture. We debated back and forth and the curiosity and need to know was overwhelming. Thank you for this information. We found it interesting

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on June 19, 2015:

Thank you for clearing this up. I love bird watching and enjoy seeing Turkey vultures riding the thermals way up in the sky. I know that "real" birders prefer the true species name, but I will always think of them as buzzards.

moonlake from America on June 19, 2015:

I like Vultures and watch them around here. Thanks for sharing the information on Buzzards both kinds. Voted up.

Pam on June 13, 2015:

The buzzards return to my area every year. I love seeing them moving back home. It's like an old erie movie. The other day I saw a hawk on the ground with 6 turkey buzzards about 20 feet behind him. I had to stop and watch what was going on. The hawk took off with a rabbit in his claws and the buzzards were like "come on just drop it"!! Too funny.

Jeanette on May 21, 2015:

Is there a difference between the domesticated turkey we have at thankgiving and the turkey buzzard and vulture, or are they the same bird and from the same family?

peacock on May 19, 2015:

Here in ft.myers fla we have huge vultures around, we were refering to them as (buzzards). Great information thanks.

Wayne Dunbar from Petaluma, California on June 16, 2013:

Thanks for this explanation. I have always known them as buzzards and when taking photos of them I just was not sure. [http://www.flickr.com/photos/wdunby/9044777133/]

Jennifer Bridges (author) from Michigan on May 03, 2013:

You're welcome! Thanks for reading!

I'm going to have to check out your hubs - I need to brush up on my geometry for work!

calculus-geometry on May 03, 2013:

Learned something new, thanks!

Jennifer Bridges (author) from Michigan on April 30, 2013:

Haha, I'm glad I could help! I don't think the vultures care what you call them, though. ;)

Thanks for stopping by!

rOBERT hEWETT SR. from Louisville, Kentucky on April 30, 2013:

Very interesting and informative. I will be 80 years old in July and growing up in Texas we called Vultures "Buzzards". I knew they were Vultrures, but just considered that a group name. To us, a hawk is a hawk and a Buzzard is that blackish soaring bird looking for carrion. I am glad you set me straight before I depart Earth. (grin)

Kamalesh Chakraverty from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India on June 14, 2012:

Excellent work with so much information! Very nicely presented. Up & Awesome!

Best Wishes, Kamalesh

Jennifer Bridges (author) from Michigan on June 10, 2012:

Thanks, aviannovice!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on June 09, 2012:

Awesome and up. Very nicely done with excellent info.

Jennifer Bridges (author) from Michigan on June 09, 2012:

We have quite a few turkey vultures here in Michigan, too. I really love seeing them around.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on June 09, 2012:

We see quite a few turkey vultures here in Pennsylvania. They are protected. It's against the law to shoot one. Early yesterday morning I saw one on the roadway which had been hit by a car. By evening it had been nearly devoured by crows or other vultures. Today not much evidence of it was left on the road. This is nature's own way of clearing road kills off the highway. We need these scavengers. Good hub.