Class: Aves (Birds)
Families: Cathartidae (New World) and Accipitridae ( Old World)
Body length: longest—California condor Gymnogyps californianus, up to 4.6 feet (1.4 meters); shortest—palm-nut vulture Gypohierax angolensis, 2 feet (60 centimeters)
Weight: heaviest—Andean condor Vultur gryphus, up to 33 pounds; lightest—palm-nut vulture, up to 3.7 pounds (1.7 kilograms)
Life span: 30 to 70 years, depending on species
Incubation: 38 to 68 days, depending on species
Number of eggs laid: 1 to 3, depending on species
Age of maturity: 1 to 8 years, depending on species
Conservation status: California condor, white-rumped vulture Gyps bengalensis, Indian vulture Gyps indicus, slender-billed vulture Gyps tenuirostris, and red-headed vulture Sarcogyps calvus are at critical risk.
Griffon vultures Gyps sp. often eat so much that they cannot fly for a while after their meal!
When a vulture is upset, its head turns red and it looks like it is blushing.
The king vultureSarcoramphus papa is closely related to a huge bird that lived during the Pleistocene epoch, the Merriam’s teratorn Teratornis incredibilis. Its scientific name means “incredible bird monster,” which is fitting because the bird had a wingspan of 10 to 12 feet (3 to 3.7 meters)! A life-size statue of this bird can be seen in the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey exhibit.
Range: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America
Hooded vultures are small (26 inches or 67 centimeters tall) birds native to Africa.
What makes a vulture?
They may not be the prettiest birds of prey, but the world would be a smellier place without vultures! These unusual birds are divided into two groups within the Hawk/Falcon/Eagle family: New World vultures, which are from North, Central, and South America, and Old World vultures, which live in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
All vultures have a wide wingspan, which allows them to soar for long periods of time without flapping so much as a feather while looking for carrion to eat. They all have a sharp, hooked beak for ripping apart meat. Vultures are large compared to other birds. Their bald head and neck serve a useful purpose, allowing vultures to steer clear of infection and tangled feathers when eating decaying meat. A strong immune system allows vultures to eat rotting and possibly infected meat without getting sick.
New versus Old
New World and Old World vultures differ in a number of way, besides their location around the world. New World vultures have nostrils that are long and horizontal, with a space between them. They do not have a voice box, so they cannot make any sound except hisses and grunts. New World vultures don’t build nests; instead, they lay their eggs in holes on high rocky surfaces or in tree cavities. Some examples of New World vultures are turkey vultures Cathartes aura, black vultures Coragyps atratus, king vultures Sarcoramphus papa, California condors Gymnogyps californianus, and Andean condors Vultur gryphus. The Andean condor is the largest of the New World vultures, with a wingspan of up to 10.5 feet (3.2 meters).
The king vulture’s scientific name means "father or leader with a fleshy, curved beak.”
Old World vultures look like their eagle and hawk relatives. They have large, grasping talons, a voice box to vocalize with, and build nests made of sticks on rocky platforms. These vultures have also been around longer than the New World vultures. They have stronger feet than the New World vultures, which have feet that are not designed for grasping. The largest Old World vulture is the Himalayan vulture Gyps himalayensis, which has a wingspan of 10 feet (3 meters). Some other examples of Old World vultures are Egyptian vultures Neophron percnopterus, Egyptian griffons Gyps fulvus, also known as Eurasian griffons, hooded vultures Necrosyrtes monachus, Indian black vultures Sarcogyps calvus, and palm-nut vultures Gypohierax angolensis.
Home is where the food is!
Vultures are pretty flexible when it comes to their habitat as long as there is food, although you won’t find them in Australia, the polar regions, or most small islands. They are pretty adaptable to different environments. These birds can spend a good part of their day soaring around while looking for food. If they hit a warm pocket of air in the sky, called a wind thermal, some vultures have the ability to soar for hours without once flapping their wings!
An Egyptian vulture demonstrates the art of cracking a fake ostrich egg during a bird show at the Safari Park.
Are you going to finish that?
Vultures are scavengers. They usually eat carrion, although sometimes they attack newborn or wounded animals. Vultures tend to look at any meal as a Thanksgiving meal, so they eat as much as they can because they never know when they will find their next meal—and it could be as long as two weeks before they do! Like many other birds, vultures have a throat pouch called a crop that can store food for eating at a later time or can be regurgitated to feed to their young.
Different vulture species have their own flair for getting their food, and their ability to use “tools” to get that food is unique among birds. The Egyptian vulture breaks open ostrich eggs by dropping stones on them. Lammergeiers Gypaetus barbatus, also known as bearded vultures, carry bones up into the air and drop them onto favored rocky areas to break them open; the birds then fly down to eat the nutritional marrow inside. In Africa, many different types of vultures will gather at a carcass to eat, but there is a pecking order: larger vultures get to eat first while the smaller ones wait their turn. Generally, though, vultures cruise the sky in flocks to look for dead animals; once one vulture lands, many more land and join in the feast.
A soaring pair!
Vultures try to attract a mate by soaring in the sky around each other. The male shows off his flying skills by almost touching the female’s wing tip as he flies by to impress her. Normally, vultures are social birds that hunt in flocks, but when it comes to starting a family, they pair for life. The female makes her nest and lays her egg(s): one egg, typically, for larger species, two eggs for smaller vulture species. Both parents work as a team to incubate and feed the chicks. Of course, baby chicks don’t drink milk; instead, the parent regurgitates meat into the chick’s mouth to feed it. Vulture chicks learn to fly when they are three to six months old.
Like most vultures, turkey vultures soar across the sky in search of a meal.
A turkey by any other name…
Turkey vultures are found all over North and South America. They are about 27 inches (70 centimeters) tall and have a wingspan of about 5.6 feet (1.7 meters). Turkey vultures are found in open country, woodlands, farms, and in our backyard at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park! These vultures have a big, dark brown body, a red bald head, and pink legs and feet. They hunt for their food by smell, feast in groups, and prefer only the tender meat. Turkey vultures are a very important part of North America’s cleanup crew.
Lacking a sense of smell, Old World vultures, such as this bearded vulture, use their sharp eyes to find food.
A symbol of doom?
Many people look at the vulture as a sign of death, but some cultures admire the birds. Ancient Egyptians connected the Griffon vulture to their goddess, Nekhbet, for guarding mothers and children. Griffon vulture images are found in early Egyptian paintings and drawings and even had a place on the crown of the pharaoh, alongside the cobra. In Native American culture, California condors are important in mythology and burial rituals. Vultures are also important in India, because they help remove dead animals without spreading disease. Vultures may not have the cleanest job, but you will never see them complaining!
Where does our cleanup crew stand now?
There are a few Old and New World vulture species that are endangered. Things that we humans put in our environment seem to be causing rapid declines in vulture populations. For example, in India and other parts of South Asia, huge numbers of vultures died because of a anti-inflammatory drug used by veterinarians and ranchers to help livestock. The vultures ate livestock that had been treated by the drug, became sick, and died.
To conserve these graceful scavengers, breeding programs, education, and awareness programs have been started for endangered vultures by organizations like The Peregrine Fund and Vulture Rescue. San Diego Zoo Global is heavily involved in the California Condor Conservation Program.There are people out there fighting for these birds, and so can you! Place trash in the right bin, don’t use dangerous chemicals, dispose of harmful substances responsibly, and recycle. These are all ways that you can help wildlife, including those misunderstood vultures.