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People sometimes view the fearsome-looking vulture as a threat or omen of doom, but the birds are an important part of the natural world. These scavenger birds vacuum up dead animal matter from the ecosystem that could contain dangerous bacteria and diseases by opportunistically feeding on whatever remains from other animals’ kills. However, several animals are in steep decline across the world as a result of human activities, which could facilitate disease transmission.

Vulture Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Cathartiformes

Family: Cathartidae

Genus: Cathartes

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura

Vulture Conservation Status: Endangered

Vulture Locations: Africa, Asia, Central-America, Eurasia, Europe, North-America, South-America

Vulture Facts

Main Prey: Rats, Small and large animal carcasses

Distinctive Feature: Large wings and sharp, curved beak

Wingspan: 130cm – 183cm (51in – 72in)

Habitat: Deserts, savannah and grassland near water

Predators: Hawks, Snakes, Wild cats

Diet: Carnivore

Lifestyle: Solitary

Favorite Food: Rats

Type: Bird

Average Clutch Size: 2

Slogan: There are 30 different species worldwide!

Vulture Physical Characteristics

Colour: Brown, Grey Black, White, Tan

Skin Type: Feathers

Top Speed: 30 mph

Lifespan: 20 – 30 years

Weight: 0.85kg – 2.2kg (1.9lbs – 5lbs)

Height: 64cm – 81cm (25in – 32in)

Three Vulture Facts!

  • Throughout human history, the vulture has played an important part. They’ve been a familiar sight on the frontline in the past, feasting on fallen troops or civilians. The bird is said to have a mystical power to track dead or dying prey in some African cultures.
  • To avoid predators, some vultures will spit up their meal. Why they do this isn’t exactly obvious. The vomit could help the bird take off by reducing its weight. Another theory is that it temporarily distracts the intruder, allowing the bird to flee quickly.
  • Vultures switch between times of relative abundance—eating as soon as they can—and lengthy periods of rest and sleep while their meal is digested.

Vulture Scientific Name

Despite common belief, the term “vulture” does not refer to a particular group’s scientific grouping. Rather, it’s a colloquial term for a variety of carrion-eating birds with similar characteristics. Vultures are presently divided into more than 20 species by taxonomists. Vultures are divided into two groups: Old World and New World.

While there are certain parallels between these two groups, they are completely unrelated. Vultures of the Old World belong to the Accipitridae tribe, which also comprises eagles, hawks, kites, and harriers. New World vultures belong to the Cathartidae tribe, which belongs to a different order.

The vulture is an example of convergent evolution, in which two species evolved identical characteristics and behaviors independently but are taxonomically distinct. In other words, they evolved to exploit a common niche despite coming from entirely different evolutionary lineages. The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), the California condor, and the Andean condor are all New World vultures. The Egyptian vulture, Griffon vulture, European black vulture, bearded vulture, and Indian vulture are among the Old World vultures.

Vulture Appearance

The vulture’s morphology, physiology, and behavior are all evidence of its extraordinary evolutionary adaptations to suit a scavenger lifestyle over millions of years. The vulture’s bald head is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. This bald patch was once thought to have developed to save the feathers from getting damp with blood while eating a carcass, but another possibility is that it aids in the control of body temperature. The large, sharp beak formed to rip flesh and muscle away from the bone. The talons and feet of the bird are designed for walking rather than destroying prey.

The vulture is a dark-colored bird with a subdued look. It has black, white, grey, and tan wings, but some birds have lighter red or orange plumage. Because of the presence of uric acid in the bird’s waste, the legs sometimes turn white. Uric acid is thought to aid in the killing of bacteria and the regulation of foot temperature.

They come in a variety of sizes, but most species, including birds of prey, are big and intimidating. The cinereous or black vulture is the largest Old World vulture species. It is nearly 30 pounds and is more than 3 feet long with a wingspan of about 9 feet. The condor is the tallest New World vulture, with a wingspan of more than 10 feet. The giant albatross, on the other hand, has a wingspan of almost 11 feet. The unusual feather adaptations of these birds have enabled them to become experts at soaring thousands of feet above the ground in search of dead or dying species. When it’s cold outside, the bird will stretch its wings in the light to warm up.

Vulture Behavior

Both New World and Old World vultures vary significantly in many main respects due to their distinct ancestral lineages. Their nesting behavior is one of the most significant variations. Vultures from the Old World tend to build their nests out of sticks. Vultures from the New World, on the other hand, rarely create nests and prefer to lay their eggs on bare surfaces. Wide colonies of birds can also be found in these breeding areas. The term “venue” or “committee” refers to a group of vultures.

Another significant distinction between the two classes is their perceptions. Any New World vultures have an acute sense of scent, allowing them to locate carcasses from great distances. In many bird species, this is a rare characteristic. Like any other species, Old World vultures have historically relied on their vision to find food.

New World vultures also lack the syrinx, a device in the throat that allows many birds to talk. They can also hiss and grunt, but they can’t produce the sorts of complicated noises and calls that birds are known for. This, in turn, limits their ability to communicate with one another.

Most vulture species spend the majority of their time within a small geographic area, although northern-based species such as the common turkey vulture migrate during the winter months. The turkey vulture spends the majority of the summer in the northern United States before migrating south as the temperature cools.

Vulture: The Bird’s Habitat

Save for Australia and the Pacific islands, Old World vultures occupy a large swath of territories in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Vultures of the New World live in a largely unbroken strip of land in the Americas south of Canada. Both enjoy hot or tropical climates, but they may also live in temperate climates. They hunt in relatively rural areas, typically near wide-open areas, and roost in rocks, bushes, and sometimes on the ground. Vultures mostly avoid human villages, but they may sometimes try to consume roadkill or trash left behind by humans.

Vulture Diet: What Does The Bird Eat?

Vultures are scavengers, a kind of carnivore that feeds on dead animals. This means they eat nearly entirely carrion—dead bodies’ leftovers—and aren’t picky on what kind of animal they eat. They have been known to opportunistically kill injured animals and hasten their deaths, despite their lack of hunting skills. They will even sometimes accompany a sick animal, waiting patiently for it to die. If the animal’s hide is too thick to pierce, it will be fed first by other predators or scavengers. They are also seen scavenging with other scavengers at a single carcass.

In their stomachs, vultures have highly specialized enzymes (basically a form of protein) that neutralize toxic bacteria that would otherwise threaten other species. In this way, they vacuum up decaying carcasses left behind by other predators from the environment. They are voracious eaters and have been known to consume up to 20% of their body weight in a single sitting. They consume the carcass thoroughly, often leaving just a small portion of it. Even the bones are consumed by the bearded vulture.

Vulture: The Bird’s Predators and Threats

They have few natural predators in the wild due to their size and power, but young chicks are often preyed upon by eagles and other carnivorous birds, as well as big cats like the jaguar. Small rodents have also been seen stealing and eating the shells. As a result, the nest must be carefully guarded against predators.

Vultures are the most vulnerable to human intervention. Illegal hunting and electrocution from power lines are two of the most pressing threats. In certain areas of their geographic range, they are also endangered by habitat destruction. Accidental contamination is perhaps the biggest human danger to them. Toxins that seep into the atmosphere have wiped out whole populations in India and Pakistan. When they eat the carcasses of farm animals that have been injected with drugs, they are at risk of dying.

Vulture: The Bird’s Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

Vultures have a lot of variation in their reproductive activity. To attract a mate, each species can have its own breeding season and courtship routine. These birds are predominantly monogamous, with only one mate at a time.

The female will lay one to three eggs in a single clutch after copulating. The eggs take about a month or two to completely incubate. Both parents can raise and defend the young chicks in some species. They do not hold food back in their talons like most birds of prey but instead regurgitate food from a specialized pouch to feed the young.

The chicks will begin to completely fledge, which means they will develop their flight feathers, after several months of careful treatment. However, even after gaining some freedom, the chicks may not leave the nest right away. They will decide to remain with the family in order to feed and protect future generations.

The juvenile birds of most species reach sexual maturity between the ages of eight and ten. In the wild, these birds normally live for at least 11 years, but some species can live for nearly 50 years.

Vulture Population

Vulture populations continue to be declining across the world, putting the species’ survival in jeopardy. The red-headed vulture (which has fewer than 10,000 left), the white-rumped vulture (also less than 10,000), the Indian vulture (about 30,000), the white-headed vulture, and a few other birds, many of which are Old World vultures, are all critically endangered, according to the IUCN Red List. However, this is not the case with all animals. With a wide range spanning South America, Central America, and the United States, the turkey vulture is classified as a species of least importance. The Migratory Bird Act provides legal rights for this population in the United States.

Some policymakers have made efforts to conserve natural ecosystems, eradicate poaching, and mitigate dangerous pollutants in the ecosystem in response to declining numbers. Captive birds are now being raised, nurtured, and cared for by conservationists in an attempt to rehabilitate their populations and reintroduce them back into their natural environments.

Birds in the Zoo: Where To Find The Vulture

Many American zoos, including the San Diego Zoo, the Saint Louis Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, and the Maryland Zoo, have vultures as the main attraction. As part of its Wild Life Live! display, the Oregon Zoo raised a female turkey vulture called Clyde (born in 1985).


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