What's the Difference Between Buzzards and Vultures?

Julia Craice, Unsplash
Julia Craice, Unsplash / Julia Craice, Unsplash

There are two names for the bald-headed birds of prey that feed on roadkill and circle lost characters in cartoons: vultures and buzzards. At least that's the case in North America. In other parts of the world, buzzards and vultures are two different birds.

Vulture is the easiest word to define, because the name describes the same animal in all English-speaking countries. The birds are scavengers known for their distinct, featherless heads. There are 23 species of vulture found throughout the globe, include the turkey vulture and the Andean condor.

Buzzard has become a slang term for vultures in the United States, but it's used much differently across the Atlantic. In the UK and elsewhere, buzzard is a name for a type of hawk. Buzzards, which cover the genus Buteo, are medium- to large-sized raptors that feed on small birds, mammals, and carrion. There are 26 hawk species with the word buzzard in their name, including the European honey-buzzard, the lizard buzzard, and the common buzzard. Members of the Buteo group are native to North America as well, but here they're simply referred to as hawks.

So how did vultures became buzzards in America? You can blame early European colonists. When these settlers first saw vultures flying high above them in the sky, they likely noticed a resemblance to the broad-winged, dark-feathered birds of prey from back home. By the time they saw vultures up close and realized they weren't hawks, the name had already gained traction.

This isn't the only case of Americans using an animal name in a confusing way. Here, opossums are often called possums for short, even though possum is the name of an entirely different marsupial species native to Australia. So if you're traveling abroad and want to tell someone you saw a buzzard eating a possum, choose your words carefully.

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