How To Tell a Vulture from A Buzzard?
8 Big Differences!

Is that a Vulture or a Buzzard that you just saw soaring in the sky? Read this post to find out!

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David A. Swanson

October 03, 2021

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What’s This Post About?

For many years, Vultures and Buzzards, popular birds of prey, have been a source of confusion for many people. However, we know that these two birds, despite numerous similarities, are not the same. In fact, there are prominently profound differences that distinguish vultures and buzzards.

To decipher between the two familiar birds, vultures, and buzzards, it is fundamental to understand the critical differences between them. The significant distinction between the two is that vultures are scavengers while buzzards are predators, making it a lot simpler to understand their physical characteristics and nature.

Vultures are relatively large birds with bald heads and necks, essentially known for their repulsive habits of eating carrions and feeding on dead creatures. On the other hand, Buzzards are relatively small in size, known for their aggressive predatory nature. They mainly hunt for and attack their prey alive.


Understanding the Terms – Buzzards and Vultures

The term Buzzard is an old European word, which has been formerly used to describe species of hawks. In the US, however, Buzzard refers to the Turkey Vulture, while in many other parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, and Asia, Buzzard is the Old World Vulture, belonging to the Buteo genus, or the family of hawks.


The roots of the problem arose when the European colonists colonized New England and North America. When these novice settlers first saw the large raptor species soaring serenely in the sky, adopting similar flight patterns, they associated this resemblance to a similar bird of prey back in Europe.

Referred to as the buzzards in Europe, the dark plumaged, broad-winged birds acquired another name in America. In reality, the birds being observed were not Buteo hawks but Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures.

Mistaking them as the hawks that were prevalent back in Europe, it was too late as the Vultures had already become renowned as Buzzards in America, still creating confusion centuries later.


In the US, vulture refers to the Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture.

Buzzards and Vultures are precisely named across most parts of the world, with the overlap arising in North America.

What are Vultures?


Vultures are pretty large birds of prey, widely known for their scavenging capabilities. Primarily feeding on the carcasses of dead animals and enjoying delectable treats of roadkill, they are one of the largest species of birds. Despite being repugnant for their nauseous eating habits, vultures are an incredible cleansing unit for our environment.


The Hooded Vulture is the smallest species of Vultures but still has an enormous wingspan of 5 feet.

Over the years, vultures have evolved, with the modern classifications dividing them into the New World Vultures and the Old World Vultures.

A conspicuous feature of the vultures is their featherless heads - and sometimes necks as well. Their ranges can be found across all the continents except for Australia and Antarctica.

What is a Buzzard?


Buzzards are large birds of prey, dwelling in a broad range of habitats, with the common Buzzard being native to Europe and Asia. Highly adaptable species, they can survive in a wide variety of regions, from grasslands to forests and deserts.

With their rounded tail and broad wings, from afar, buzzards greatly resemble hawks. The name of the buzzards derives from the genus name Buteos. These birds usually do not form flocks unless they are migrating to a different region.

Often seen soaring in the sky in circles, the overall shape of their wings helps them fly swiftly on the air currents. These voracious predators kill and then feed on animals, preferring alive creatures over carrions.


Male buzzards are considered ideal hunters due to their weight. Female buzzards tend to weigh more than males.

Similarities Between Buzzards and Vultures


Buzzards and Vultures - these two terms have greatly befuddled the minds of people. Often used interchangeably, we tend to miss out on some of the prominent distinctions between the species due to their astounding similarities.

  • Both are Birds of Prey
  • Both have long and broad wings that aid in soaring fluently on the thermal currents.
  • Both adopt a circular motion in flight

Differences Between Vultures And Buzzards

Due to the similarities between the birds, and more so, the overlap in the colloquial terms to refer to these birds, there has been considerable confusion. Explore these differences to clear out the misconceptions regarding the two species.

1. Dietary Habits


Vultures are primarily known for their repulsive dietary habits, majorly feeding on the carcasses of dead animals, scavenging the ground for carrions, thereby eliminating the bacteria and infections.

Despite their abhorrent diet, vultures have an essential role to play in our ecosystem. After all, by ingesting the carcasses of dead creatures around, they cleanse the environment, mitigating the risk of infectious diseases.


Gyphohierax angolensis - a species of vultures - is an exception. It prefers a variable diet from the other vultures, feeding on oil palm fruits.

Unlike the vultures, which rarely attack healthy animals, buzzards actively hunt and attack alive animals such as rabbits and other smaller mammals. However, they do not mind feeding on the carcasses of dead animals occasionally when other food sources are scarce.

Vultures are cautious eaters, carefully observing their surroundings for any threats before approaching their potential meal. However, the predatory nature of buzzards makes them fierce, as they fiercely attack the prey and dig into the food - not too wary of their surroundings.

2. Size

Extremely large in size, measuring about 3.3 feet in length and 12.5 kgs in weight, the heavy build of the massive birds, presents a restraint in its mobility.

Making the vultures quite sluggish, their hefty size impacts their speed. However, the long and broad wings of the bird play a significant role in helping the bird to glide at high altitudes, only rarely flapping its wings.

The relatively small-sized, measuring around 20 inches in length and varying around 1-2 kgs in weight, Buzzards can maintain a rapid speed in flight. The predatory nature of the bird gives it greater agility, enabling it to fly at an average speed of 28mph.

The medium-sized bodies of the bird, with long broad wings extending to a wingspan of around 43-55 inches, and rounded tails greatly aid the bird to soar on the thermal currents for long hours swiftly.

3. Physical Appearance


An eminent physical trait of the Vultures is their bald head and neck. Covered in reddish skin, Vultures have a proportionately smaller head relative to their body.

Devoid of any feathers on their long neck and head, the bald feature gives the birds an irksome appearance.

Despite this, it plays an essential role in preventing any bacteria from adhering to the feathers due to the unhealthy food that they consume. In addition, the heat from the sun kills any bacteria and germs that stick to the skin while feeding, ensuring that the bird remains clean.

However, the entire body of buzzards, including their head and neck, is well covered with feathers, prominently distinguishing them from vultures.

4. Anatomical Features - Beaks and Talons


Vultures have relatively weak talons and a bluntly hooked bill. They do not need solid feet as they do not have to capture prey fiercely. Most of their prey is already dead, so they just need to rip them apart to feed on them. The relatively blunt beak is sufficient for this.

Buzzards, on the other hand, consume their prey alive. This entails it necessary for them to have a stout bill and powerful talons to capture their prey. In addition, the strong legs of the raptor allow it to rapidly chase and clasp its potential prey. Once they’re able to grasp their prey alive and ravenously kill it, they enjoy the delectable feast.

5. Keen Sense of Smell and Sight

Relative to the buzzards, vultures have an incredibly keen sense of smell. Soaring at high altitudes in the sky, the ability to sense vile odor from far away allows the bird to locate food. However, it primarily depends on its unusual smell to sniff carcasses from miles away.

Buzzards possess an incredibly sharp sense of sight. Relying on their whacking visual acuity, these birds of prey soar at high altitudes to search and locate potential prey, to capture and attack them actively. They would also hide amidst the dense trees to lurk their target species.

6. Social Behavior

Feeding primarily on carrions, vultures are often considered obnoxious for their feeding habits. Entirely commonly found in flocks, these birds are known to surround a sick or injured creature, perhaps in anticipation, waiting for it to die, to feed on the carcasses once the animal passes away.

Buzzards often tend to be found alone, as opposed to flocks. This is because they are not very gregarious species, usually circling the sky alone. However, they form large flocks when migrating.

7. Difference in Habitat

Buzzards are not very specific about the environment they can reside in. Highly adaptable species, they can survive in a wide range of habitats, from the tropical deserts, forests, and coastal to the frigid regions and mountains; the raptor can thrive in nearly all environments.

Vultures, on the contrary, require an optimal atmosphere to thrive in. They can hardly survive in the colder regions - perhaps due to the bare skin on their body - which makes survival arduous in extreme colds. For this reason, vultures are absent in Antarctica, usually prospering in warmer regions of Europe, parts of Asia, and Africa.

8. Classification


Widely known as scavenging birds, vultures can be found across all continents except for Antarctica. Belonging to the order Falconiformes, there are 23 species of Vultures. They are further divided into two groups known as Old World Vultures and New World Vultures, although the two groups are not closely related.

16 species are part of the Old World Vultures, belonging to the Accipitridae family, typically found in Asia, Europe, and Africa, while the New World Vultures comprises of the remaining 7 species, which are members of the Cathartidae family, dwelling in the temperate regions of America.

Belonging to the family Accipitridae and the genus of Buteo, Buzzards have 26 species. Among the many species, some types of Buzzards include the Common Buzzard, European Honey Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard, Forest Buzzard, and Lizard Buzzard.


Keep Reading!

Though often used interchangeably, Vultures and Buzzards are two very distinct species. While vultures are scavengers, buzzards are predators. Not only do their dietary habits vary considerably, but both birds of prey have prominent variations in their physical traits that clearly set them apart.

The issue might still persist due to the different names the birds have acquired. For example, Buzzards, in some countries, is known as Vultures, whereas in others, they are referred to as Hawks. This would make it challenging to create a clear line of distinction between the two.

It is, undoubtedly, essential for birders to recognize the critical distinctions between the Vultures and Buzzards and know what the bird is called in the part of the world they are viewing it to record their observations rightly.

Do you often tend to wonder why the Vultures are often seen flying around in Circles? Read our post to find out!

Why Do Vultures Circle in The Sky? Safety First!

From afar, vultures seem to enjoy a serene flight in the sky and what's intriguing is their circular motion. The question is, why do they do it?

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By David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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David A. Swanson Picture

David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!



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