King Vulture

(Sarcoramphus papa)

Habitat and Distribution: Found in tropical lowland forests, savannas and coastal marshes throughout Central and South America, from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.

Size: 2.5 feet long; 6-8 pounds; wingspan up to 6.5 feet

Wild Diet: Rotting carcasses (carrion)

Predators: Healthy adults have few predators, but eggs may be taken by large cats and snakes

Reproduction: Instead of building nests, females deposit a single egg in the hollow of a rotten tree trunk. Both parents take turns incubating the egg until it hatches (about 2 months later). Newly hatched chicks are naked but soon grow white downy feathers. The male regurgitates carrion to feed the mother and chick. Chicks leave the tree stump after 3 months and often stay with their parents for 2 years. They start growing adult plumage at 18 months and complete the transition by the third or fourth year.

Behavior: King vultures are scavengers and usually solitary except when in family groups. They may also congregate around carcasses in small groups. Unlike turkey vultures, king vultures don’t have a good sense of smell. To find dead animals, they follow other carrion-eating birds. Their strong beaks allow them to pierce tough hides and consume flesh. Bald heads and necks are adaptations that help them eat carrion without having feathers matted with blood.

Conservation

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Although their populations are small, king vultures are spread across a large range; hunting in any area is not likely to put the entire species at risk. However, because they prefer to live in undisturbed forest canopies, deforestation and human encroachment may eventually pose a threat.

The king vulture has a Species Survival Plan (SSP).

Did you know?

  • King vultures and other scavengers keep their environments free of dead, decomposing animals.
  • They rarely flap their wings. To travel, they ride air currents.
  • They are named for the fact that other birds stop feeding on a carcass to make way for the “king” when it appears.