Why Do Vultures Circle?

Vultures are crowned as the largest of raptors.

And so, flying with mere fluttering is quite difficult for these birds.

That is why, they use their broad wings to soar on rising air currents, thereby achieving great heights.

And so, they circle to stay within the vicinity of a thermal. 

You see,

Flying in circles allows vultures to completely scan an area for carrion. (Decaying flesh of animals)

Here’s what you’re going to discover in this article

  • Why do vultures fly in circles?
  • Do vultures circle dying animals?
  • How do vultures know when something is dying?
  • What does it mean when vultures circle you?
  • Why do black vultures hang around?

So if you’re interested in learning all about vultures and why they circle then you’re going to love this article

Sound interesting?


Let’s get started

Why Do Vultures Fly In Circles?

Because rather than flapping, vultures fly through soaring within thermals.

You see, vultures are extremely bulky birds.

These range from the largest of Andean Condors weighing about 15 kgs and a wingspan of 3m to the smallest of black vultures weighing approximately 1.3 kgs and a wingspan of 1.7m.


Fluttering is impractical for vultures as it takes a huge amount of energy. 

Now, the earth’s surface is quite uneven.

Therefore, sunlight warms the soil at different temperatures in various locations.

This change in temperature results in rising currents of warm air, or simply “thermals”.


Raptors have adapted to exploit thermals, allowing them effortless flying at great heights. 

This is precisely how Griffon Vultures that weigh about 11 kgs and have wingspans of 2.8m, can achieve more than 40,000 feet above the ground. 

Still, thermals are limited to specific areas.

They occur only at certain times of the day, typically start with the sunrise and end with the sunset. 

But these thermals do form distinct air paths. 


Vultures fly in circles to remain within a thermal and paraglide to move between thermals.

Technically, a vulture circling over is not always an omen of death.

Do Vultures Circle Dying Animals?

Usually, they do.

But their circling over does not always mean death.

You see, vultures are naturally shy and cautious creatures.

Which means, they neither like surprises nor taking unnecessary risks. 

In fact, they fly in circles for hours above a dying animal for safety concerns. 

Normally, they observe the following:

  1. Are there any better prospective dead bodies in the surrounding?
  2. Are there any predators hiding around the carcass? 
  3. Is the dead body indeed dead? or is it still moving?
  1. Will they be able to poke through dead skin? or they would have to wait for another scavenger to open the carcass? Or would the dead body soften down on its own?

You may be wondering, “why would a vulture waste so much time before feasting?”  

It’s because vultures are often predated by their supposed food.  

For instance, vultures tend to thrive in famine.

However, they are also the most easily eaten birds out of starvation. 

Even a lion or leopard would wait around a dead body to eat a fresh vulture than eat a carcass.

Despite their intimidating presence, vultures are quite harmless birds.

Of course, vulture beaks can cause damage to any predator.

But they still lack the strong feet to grab and crush their enemies.  

Fighting off a vulture is more like fighting an over-grown pigeon than a fearsome raptor. 

However, vultures do understand that they don’t have much defense against other predators.

Therefore, they tend to stick in groups.

Still, they would rather flee a scene than risk getting eaten.

This is precisely why a vulture’s first reaction to any attack is to throw up and fly away. 

Also, the puke is not some bio-hazardous weapon.

Instead, they puke to lower down their weight so they can easily become airborne.

But, the vomit does help in distracting their predators.

A more interesting question would be asking:

How Do Vultures Know When Something Is Dying?

Because they have excellent vision and can smell death decay.

These senses also help vultures locate carcasses.

1. Smelling Death

New-world vultures have exceptionally developed olfactory nerves.

They can smell a rotting rodent from tens of miles away, even if it’s hidden beneath some bushes.

In particular, vultures can smell Ethyl Mercaptan – a sulfur-containing hydrocarbon gas that is released during organic decay.

The same gas is responsible for the smell of flatulence and bad breath as well as cabbage and rotten eggs.

Vulture’s relation to decay gases was first observed in 1938 when Union Oil Company injected mercaptan in their pipelines.

But they found vultures gathered around pipe leaks.

In 1986, a study on turkey vultures was conducted in Panama.

The vultures found 71 of 74 dead chickens within 3 days, even though some of these were concealed.

Interestingly, vultures found old carcasses earlier than fresh ones.

But they still preferred to eat fresh dead bodies before the old ones.  

But they couldn’t find 3 carcasses, because these were too fresh to exude decay gases.


High amounts of mercaptan indicate postmortem decay, confirming the death of that animal. 

Other vultures that rely on their sense of smell to find a dying animal include King vulture as well as greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures. 

2. Visually Tracking The Dead

Old-world vultures have excellent eyesight.

These birds can even see a dead worm from 100 meters away.

They can see more vivid colors.

Vultures can even detect drastic changes in body heat, thereby identifying a sick animal.

Furthermore, they stick around a dying animal to ensure it is not moving much.

Some even look for bugs and other scavengers, as a sign of death. 

Some track other vultures to find a dying or dead animal.

For instance, black vultures have great eyesight, but a poor sense of smell.

These vultures often follow turkey vultures that can easily smell death. 


What Does It Mean When Vultures Circle You?

It can be anything from vultures strolling around to migrating or the presence of a dead body.

Sometimes, it can even mean mere curiosity.

1. Presence Of a Carcass

Like all other animals, vultures are also driven by food.

If vultures have come around your place for the first time.

Odds are vultures have smelled decaying carrion around your place.

It could be anything from a rotting sheep to a rodent, or even the old walnuts.

2. Circling In Thermals

If vultures frequently visit you, then perhaps your place is in their regular thermal-based air path. 

Vultures are likely circling you because they are soaring in thermals around you.

3. Migration

Since a group of flying raptors repeatedly circles over.

It seems like simmering water in a kettle.

Which is why flying vultures are referred to as “a kettle of vultures”

Normally, vultures tend to travel in a kettle of 4-12 birds.


If there are thousands of vultures circling around your place, then they may simply be migrating to some warm region.

This is most common when winter approaches or spring starts.

4. Curiosity

Though vultures are often observed only as an omen of death.

However, they are quite curious birds.

Sometimes they circle human areas only to fulfill their curiosity.


If a vulture is circling you, maybe it finds you interesting.

5. Loss Of Habitat

Vultures tend to soar in large territories. 

However, environmental changes and human activities have caused massive destruction to natural habitats.

We are observing animals in places, they had never seen before

Perhaps, vultures are circling around your place because they have no home left.

Such an incident was reported by News6 when development in Orange County caused black vultures to migrate to Central Florida.

The vultures then caused huge damage to human property. 

These vultures tore down window caulking, vent seals, roof shingles, and rubber liners as well as pool covers and car wipes.

They even scratched off paint and vinyl seat covers. 

While the locals did use vulture repellents, there was not much they could do.


Why Do Black Vultures Hang Around?

Black vultures tend to form strong family bonds.

They often hang around in the committees of 8-30 birds. 

But if you are wondering why they are hanging around a certain place.

Then, it may be due to the following reasons:

  1. Black vultures cannot smell well. And so, they often hang around looking for turkey vultures to find a carcass. Until they find turkey vultures moving around, black vultures just kill time.
  2. With changes in the environment, air currents are changing. So, 

Perhaps, there are new thermals around places where they were non-existent before.

Therefore, black vultures may be hanging around in places, they could not reach before.

  1. Apart from the dead, black vultures also eat reptile eggs and newborn babies. Also, they do eat rotting coconuts and food waste. So, 

Black vultures often hang around dumps and gardens to eat food other than carcasses.

  1. Sometimes black vultures are unable to eat a carcass. In such cases, they either wait for some other scavenger to open the dead body, or allow the natural decay to soften down carcass skin. 
  2. Black vultures have been seen around human societies when their habitats were destroyed.

But perhaps, you have only recently noticed black vultures. 

They mostly live in Southeast America, west to Texas.

A huge population of black vultures is also found in the Northern territories of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. 

Recently, black vultures have also been reported in Southern Arizona.

Despite all these reasons, we still don’t know enough about black vultures.

So, sometimes we cannot explain their behaviors. 

For instance, fishermen from Indiana Farmlands complained in ABC Action News Report, that vultures explicitly attacked their car tires and wipers. 

We still don’t know what triggered these birds to suddenly attack human cars. 

They are interesting birds indeed!

Wrapping Up 

Vultures take advantage of rising air currents or thermals for flying.

And so, they soar in circles to stay within the bounds of a thermal.

But they also circle the dead to ensure their food is indeed dead.

But they find dying animals by smelling decay gases.

Otherwise, they visually look for the carcasses.

If a vulture is circling you, then it may have smelled a dead animal around.

Or perhaps, the vultures are just migrating. 

There’s nothing to be afraid of because they won’t harm you

Here’s some related articles you may find interesting

Do vultures attack humans?

Are vultures dangerous?

Do vultures attack dogs? 

Do vultures eat live animals?

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