Black Vulture Symbolism And Totem

Black vulture on chain link fence main

Black vultures (one of three types of vultures who live in the United States) are scavengers but also mate for life and gracefully fly through the sky. This two-sided quality is reflected in their symbolism.  The symbolism is full of darkness, bad omens, and death.  But, death is part of life, and black vultures serve an important role, including as urban clean-up crews.  Black vulture totems also reflect this nuanced double nature.

We learned that vultures are not all bad.  For instance, they often symbolize death and taking advantage of the weak.  But, vultures are nature’s cleaning crew.  The “circle of life” includes cleaning up!  Black vultures particularly also have a range of meanings. Let’s take a look.

Vultures: Basic Facts 

Vultures are a species of large carrion-eating birds that live predominantly in the tropics and subtropics.  They are scavengers, animals who consume dead animals.   

Vultures are closely related to hawks, eagles, and falcons.  They live in groups on cliffs, in tall trees, or on the ground and soar gracefully through the air with their large wings.  

Black Vultures 

The U.S. has three species of vultures:  black and turkey vultures and the California condor.  

Black vultures live largely in the east and southeast U.S., also extending their range into Central and South America.  They are doing pretty well, especially with all our garbage to eat.  

Black vultures can be recognized by their bulky bodies, thick gray legs, and bald heads with gray skin. They communicate by grunting, squealing, and hissing noises. They also use the positions of their necks, wings, and body postures.

They are social birds, keeping in groups, and mate for life.  An example of a mating ritual:

The male first dives at the female, and she responds by diving. The two then engage in a fast downward pursuit. The male follows every gyration the female makes. These chases can last for minutes.  Occasionally, a male dives at a presumably female individual, but she does not dive or engage in response, possibly signaling a lack of interest on her part.

Betty Vulture is like “eh, he’s not all that.”  

A Whole Lot Of Symbolism

Vultures have a range of symbolic meanings. They were in ancient times respected for their role in cleansing the land while also feared for their association with death and destruction.  

Black vultures are more likely to be associated with bad things.  Black has long symbolized darkness, sickness, evil, and death.  The dark of night was when trouble reigned.  

Black vultures are often bad omens.  They are symbols of disaster and mourning.  They are scary and something to fear.   Christians saw them as signs of evil.  

The symbolism is not all bad.  Symbolism related to death and the underworld often recognizes the cycle of life.  Death is part of our existence and its symbols can help us keep perspective. 

Black vultures also are associated with shapeshifters and messengers between this world and other dimensions.  They are also symbols of rebirth and regeneration.  

These things show the potential for this hated animal to have positive connotations. They even are sometimes seen as symbols of protection.  After all, they are not afraid of death.  

Some African cultures also believe they are signify the coming of rain (“rainbirds”).  

Vulture Environmentalists 

New York City has a love/hate relationship with pigeons.  They are basically our unofficial birds and are worthy of a lot of respect.  Others think of them as basically flying rats.  

Lima, Peru decided their black vultures deserved some love.  Environmental authorities saw their value as clean-up crews. And, one thing many heavily populated urban areas have is garbage.  Citizens were encouraged to adopt vultures and better understand these animals.

Black vultures symbolized environmentalism, conservation, cleanliness, and the importance of everyone doing their part.  Dogs and cats became human civilization’s partners. Why not them?


A totem is a spirit being, sacred item, or symbol that represents a group of people.  You might know the term “totem pole,” including if you are a fan of the Brady Bunch.  

Native Americans often have certain animal totems, and groups of people (clans and tribes) have a close relationship with them.  There are often many myths and stories about such animals.  

Black vultures’ association with death and the underworld means they have a special spiritual significance.  They can guide souls to the afterlife.  Their bones and feathers are used in ceremonies.  Some believe a shaman will be reincarnated as a black vulture.  

The fearful connotations of these birds make them a powerful totem.  It also has a possible special dark side.  Black vultures serve a purpose.  But, they also take advantage of those unable to protect themselves.  A black vulture totem can signify a person has a dark soul.  

Fearful Respect 

Black vultures are often creatures we fear, both because of how they look and what they do.  

Fear is sometimes misplaced. Other times, we are right to be fearful.  Or, at least, to respect the power of certain things, and what they are likely to signify.   

Black vultures are best treated in this fashion.  They are wondrous creatures in various ways.  They also serve a purpose. They also are associated with death and waste.  We are correct to show some disgust about this.  Nonetheless, they also have a right to demand a bit of thanks.