The 2018 Birds of Prey Calendar

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Scientific Name:

Sarcoramphus papa

Population Status:

Lower Risk

Body Length:

28–32 in (67–81 cm)

Wingspan:

4–6.6 ft (1.2–2 m)

Weight:

6–10 lb (2.7–4.5 kg)

Conservation Projects


What makes a raptor a raptor?

Research Resources

Did you know?

The King Vulture appears often in the Mayan codices - books written by the Maya in their hieroglyphic script. After the Andean and California Condors, the King Vulture is the largest vulture of the New World. There is a bit of mystery surrounding the possible sighting of a bird being called the "painted vulture," which one biologist claims to have observed in Florida in 1936, and whose description closely matches that of the King Vulture. However, most scientists believe that this was not a reliable account.

The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with King Vultures, but our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

Like the Black Hawk-eagle or the Orange-breasted Falcon, the King Vulture is a neotropical species. This means it can be found throughout... you guessed it... the Neotropics! The Neotropics, beginning south of the Tropic of Cancer, is the area of land that ranges from southern Mexico through Central America - which includes the countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and further south into South America, including the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and many others, all the way to northern Argentina. Generally speaking, neotropical species are not found in the southern-most regions of South America. As you now know, the neotropics covers a lot of territory, so let’s get down to specifics. Where, in all that land, does this bird make its home? The King Vulture lives mainly in lowland or middle elevation undisturbed forests and forest edges. If you live in or have a chance to visit an area where this large vulture lives, you might be lucky enough to observe it searching for food while soaring with its wide wings over a range of different habitats from densely forested areas to open grasslands. It can even be seen perching and feeding in tropical forest settings. Though the Black Vulture, which can be often found in large numbers in and around garbage cans in some towns, you would be hard pressed to find a King Vulture anywhere near villages or other areas heavily populated by humans - let alone the garbage dumps often associated with them.

As you might imagine, it takes a pretty impressive bird to live up the name "King" anything, and the King Vulture does not disappoint. The King Vulture is arguably one of the world's most beautiful vultures. It is covered in predominantly white feathers. Its white wings are highlighted with contrasting black feather tips, wing coverts and tail. Like other vulture species, the King Vulture has a mostly featherless head and neck. And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where the King Vulture's true beauty lies. It has a white eye and red eye ring, an orange-red beak, and its head and neck are a virtual rainbow of colors such as orange, pink, yellow, purple, grey and black. It has a grayish ruff around its neck, which resembles a fluffy scarf. It has a bright yellow and orange-red caruncle, or wattle - a fleshy nob, above its cere - which usually doesn't form completely until the vulture is about 4 years old or so. Finally, its feet are a dull grey color. Juvenile King Vultures are mostly all black. The adult male and female King Vulture have similar plumage and there is very little difference in size between them. However, the caruncles look different on adults and play an important role in greeting and courtship displays. Biologists can even use them to help identify individual birds! Apart from making them look absolutely stunning, King Vultures have featherless heads for more practical purposes, as well. When feeding, vultures sometimes need to stick their heads deep into the cavities of dead animals to get to the juiciest bits! At times like these, a bald head is very useful – otherwise bits of flesh, blood, or other fluids might get stuck on their feathers, creating quite a mess. Though vultures spend a lot of time preening, or cleaning their feathers, it would be impossible for them to clean their own heads so having a bald head is quite handy when it comes to cleanliness! Before you start thinking that the King Vulture is just another pretty face, you should be aware that it is also one of the larger neotropical vultures. In fact, because it is often the biggest vulture at a feeding site it definitely takes advantage of the situation. As you can image, it tends to be dominant over all the smaller vulture species when at a carcass - meaning it can move the smaller vulture species out of the way to get in and feed. However, if Andean Condors -which are even larger than the King Vulture - are present at the carcass, the King Vulture takes its place in line behind them. Unlike other vulture species, who can congregate in very big numbers, often only two or three individuals are seen together at the same carcass. The King Vulture, like many other birds of prey, can sometimes be seen with its wings outspread, sunning itself. Vultures, like many birds and even humans, enjoy the feel of the warm sun on their backs. Vultures spread their wings to allow the most sunlight to reach as many of their feathers as possible. They sun to stay warm and to keep their feathers healthy. King Vultures, like all other vultures of course, are known as nature’s sanitary engineers. Though it might seem very gross to us that they eat dead things, they are actually helping to prevent the spread of disease and pests by cleaning up carcasses quickly. Imagine what it would be like if there weren't vultures around and dead animals were just left to rot. Not only would the smell be terrible, but it would also be potentially dangerous to us. So, let's all take a moment to thank vultures for their excellent clean-up skills. Unlike most other bird species, vultures aren't equipped with a voice box to make elaborate calls and songs. However, they can make various sounds for example: when they are threatened, they make a series of grunting or hissing noises. They can also make a beautiful noise with another body part – their wings! Occasionally, when they make a dive, the wind whistling through their feathers makes a very impressive "whooshing" noise that sounds like a plane flying low overhead.

The King Vulture is still listed as Least Concern - meaning it is not in immediate danger of extinction. However, the species is declining in most parts of its range outside of the undisturbed forest regions in the Amazon lowlands. For example, most Central American countries have classified the King Vulture as an endangered species. It has been decreasing in numbers mainly due to habitat loss, shooting and decline in food supply.

King Vultures are primarily carrion feeders. But what, exactly, is carrion? Though it might sound like the luggage you take with you on a plane, carrion actually means dead animal remains. As you can probably imagine, a place as biodiverse as the neotropics can also provide a high diversity of dead things. King Vultures feed mainly on large mammals, such as cows, oxen, and tapirs, and smaller mammals like armadillos. They will also feed on large fish, reptiles, such as snakes and caimans, birds, sloths, monkeys, or palm fruits. The King Vulture has a very strong, curved beak which it uses to rip into the thick hides of its prey. Unlike the Turkey Vulture, however, the King Vulture does not have a strong sense of smell. In fact, biologists did an experiment with captive King Vultures where they hid the vultures' food out of sight, to see if they could find it using their sense of smell. Spoiler alert! They could not. Instead, the King Vulture relies on visual cues to find a meal. One of the best clues that there is something good to eat somewhere nearby is the site of many other vultures congregating together in one area. So, King Vultures often soar very high in the sky to keep an eye out for the other vulture species in the area. When they see large groups of Black and/or Turkey Vultures they can be sure they have stumbled upon a smorgasbord of rotting meat, or, as they see it, a delicious feast.

Like the Harpy Eagle, King Vultures are believed to be monogamous, meaning that they remain with the same mate throughout their life. When breeding season begins, King Vultures look for a suitable place to lay their eggs. However, they do not actually build nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in the hollow of a tree stump, at the base of palm trees, on the ground or in the crevices of a cliff face. King Vultures mainly lay one single large and plain white egg – that closely resembles an overgrown chicken's egg. The female and male both help incubate their egg. They take turns sitting on it to make sure it doesn't get too hot or too cold. They must do this until the egg hatches, at between 50-58 days. Once the chick hatches, it is covered in fluffy white down feathers (like a fluffy puff ball), except its feet and head, which are bare. Both its parents will continue to feed it and care for it. Chicks are ready to leave the nest and begin to practice their flying skills roughly 4 months after hatching.

The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including California Condors and a Turkey Vulture. Come for a visit, where our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about King Vultures or other birds of prey. If you are in Boise at the beginning of September, get in touch with our education crew at the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center to learn about International Vulture Awareness Day activities.


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