Difference Between Buzzards & Vultures

By Jennifer Reynolds

The words buzzard and vulture mean something different in North America and South America than they do in Europe. Buzzards and vultures are both scavenger birds that feed on carrion -- the carcasses of dead animals -- but their appearance and evolution are different.


Old World Vultures

Old world vultures live in Europe, Asia and Africa and are evolved from eagles and hawks. They have feathers covering their entire heads and bodies. Their beaks are curved and they soar gracefully, using broad wing beats to propel themselves. Old world vultures do not possess a sense of smell.

New World Vultures

New world vultures, which are found in North America and South America, are characterized by their bald, usually red heads. Unlike their old world counterparts, they have a very keen sense of smell. The term new world vulture encompasses seven species of birds: turkey vultures, both the lesser and greater yellow-headed vultures, American black vultures, king vultures, California condors and Andean condors. The turkey vulture is the most common, while the California condor is the only species of new world vulture on the threatened species list, having nearly faced extinction in the 1980s.


Many species of North American hawks are known as buzzards, including chicken hawks, red-tail hawks and Cooper hawks. These birds are often hunted illegally by people who mistake them for larger species of hawk that threaten livestock and pets. Buzzards, like vultures, generally live off carrion; when they do hunt, they prefer rodents such as rats and mice.


Traditionally, both old and new world vultures were scientifically classified as falconiformes. Old world vultures have retained this classification, while new world vultures are now known as ciconiiformes, since they are more closely related to an order of birds that includes storks than they are to old world vultures. Buzzards, meanwhile, belong to the order accipitriformes.