This species is the stuff of legends and was revered by the Mayans who thought that they acted as messengers between humans and the gods. It can be as tall as a Kune Kune pig (from 71-81cm) and its wingspan can reach lengths of 2 metres, which is roughly one Michael Jordan. The great basketball player may have believed he could fly, but he couldn’t reach heights of more than 500ft like these vultures. Imagine seeing this impressive species soaring above you and you can start to see why it was held with such high regard. They are found from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, usually in undisturbed forest, but also in grasslands and savana.
King vultures are scavengers feeding on carrion which they typically locate by sight. They feed on carcasses ranging from dead fish to sloths and cattle. The majority of research suggests that this species does not have a functioning sense to smell to locate food and has to rely on Cathartes vultures (C. aura or C. melambrotus) in order to find food (Houston 1984), although other research found that they are more than capable to locating food on their own (Lemon 1991).
King vultures have featherless head and necks, which is commonly associated with hygiene. Vultures often stick their head inside carcasses and if they had feathers in these areas pieces of meat and bacteria would collect there, potentially having adverse affects on their health. Research in griffon vultures has suggested that staying cool could be another reason for why vultures have bare skin in these areas .
These guys are known for their strength. In a study comparing them to turkey, black and lesser yellow-headed vultures the king vulture was the only one capable of moving or turning a large carcass such as a calf (Houston 1988-link to paper). Considering they only weigh 3-3.75kg that is an impressive feat. It is perhaps unsurprising that they have few natural predators with snakes preying on young and opportunistic large cats getting adults whilst they are feeding.
Only a few nests have been located in the wild, but there is good breeding information from captive populations. One egg is laid which has been reported to be incubated by the pair or just the female and hatches in around 55 days. Development in captivity suggests that they fledge at around 3 months. Here’s a charming video of a 25 day old chick being ‘fed’ by a rather odd looking adult. They are monogamous and the parents share brooding duties (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001).
The king vulture is of least concern on the IUCN redlist although populations are in decline with some experts estimating that there are between 670 and 6700 mature individuals left in the wild. They are known to live for up to 30 years in captivity, although longevity and survivorship rates are not known in the wild.
Check out this National Geographic video for a bit more info, although it does seem to have some differences with some of the information we’ve found!
BirdLife International 2012. Sarcoramphus papa. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 29 June 2015.
BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Sarcoramphus papa. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 29/06/2015.
Ferguson-Lees, J., and D. A. Christie. 2001. Raptors of the world. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York.
Holste, Melissa, and Janet Ruth. 2014. King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=119036
Houston, D. & Kirwan, G.M. (2013). King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2013). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52944 on 29 June 2015).
Houston, D.C. 1984. Does the King Vulture use a sense of smell to locate food? Ibis, 126: 67-69.
Lemon, W.C. 1991. Foraging behavior of a guild of Neotropical vultures. Wilson Bulletin, 103: 698–702.
Images and videos
National Geographic. 2009. King Vultures. [Online]. [Accessed 1st July 2015]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yllQwGMbi0