- Common Name:
- Scientific Name:
- Cathartidae, Accipitridae
- Group Name:
- Kettle, Committee, or Wake
- Average Life Span In The Wild:
- 20 years
- Wingspan: 4.9 to 10 feet
- 2.1 to 33 pounds
What is a vulture?
Vultures are large, social raptors that live on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. The 23 species are divided into New World vultures from the Americas and Old World vultures from Europe, Asia, and Africa. An example of convergent evolution, these groups evolved independently and are not closely related.
Diet and scavenging
Most vultures are scavengers, feeding primarily on carrion. Their cleaning service is invaluable to humans. By hoovering up the remains of decaying bodies, they prevent stench, significantly curtail carbon emissions, and eliminate bacteria such as botulism and plague that can be released during decomposition. (Learn more about vultures with your kids.)
Vultures have adaptations that allow them to consume rotten food in a way that other animals can’t. They’re thought to have strong immunity to pathogens that would sicken or kill other animals. They also have hardcore stomach acid that destroys even the most dangerous bacteria and helps them extract nutrients from their food.
Some, like South America’s colorful king vulture, have bald heads and necks, which are more hygienic than feathers when you’re head-deep in carcass. (Baldness may also play a role in thermoregulation for these animals who soar from hot landscapes into chilly heights quickly.)
Not all vultures dine on the dead, however.
The palm-nut vulture of coastal central Africa, primarily eats the fruits of raffia and oil palms. Egyptian vultures are tool users, employing rocks to break tough ostrich eggs. Bearded vultures favor the bones of animals like goats and other small ungulates, which they drop from the sky onto rocks. Not only does it enable them to eat the fragments but it helps them to get to the delicious, nutritious marrow.
Some species, like the turkey vulture of the Americas, never hunt or kill for food while others may do so occasionally. (Learn about the odd science of shooing vultures away.)
Behavior and bird calls
Vultures use their own body fluids for self-care. They defecate on their legs to keep cool, a behavior called urohidrosis. And though they have few predators, they practice defensive vomiting when they feel threatened to scare away a would-be attacker.
Only Old World vultures can make alarm and other calls. New World vultures have no syrinx—a bird’s voice box—so they vocalize in hisses or grunts.
Many vultures are monogamous, returning to the same partner every breeding season.
For turkey vultures, courtship starts when several individuals gather in a circle to perform a hopping dance. Then, birds couple off and fly in tandem, with one bird closely following the other in the air.
Vultures usually produce two eggs that both parents incubate for 28 to 40 days on flat ground in a sheltered area like a cave or even an abandoned building. The young are born blind and helpless and will develop their wings between nine to 10 weeks and leave the nest at 60 to 80 days.
Threats and conservation
Despite their value to human and planetary health, vultures are among the most endangered birds in the world.
The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species assessments of vulture populations run the gamut. Griffon vultures, for example, are of least concern but six other species listed are critically endangered—two steps from extinction. These include the red-headed or Podnicherry vulture and the California condor. India and Bangladesh are home to white-rumped, slender-billed, and red-headed vultures, all critically endangered.
In India, vulture populations have fallen more than 99 percent since the 1990s due to the use of a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac. The medicine causes fatal kidney failure in vultures that eat the carcasses of treated cows. The loss of the vultures has affected the country’s human population, too, as cattle were left to rot—resulting in stench and an increase in rabies as feral dogs consume the infected carrion instead and spread the disease. (How Kenya is fighting vulture poisoning.)
Both India and Bangladesh banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006 and 2010, respectively. Bangladesh also established vulture safe zones and community-based vulture feeding stations and, as a result, the local population decline has stopped. India has also been breeding captive vultures to shore up wild populations, and officials monitor areas around breeding stations for diclofenac. (Vultures: Photographing the antiheroes of our ecosystems.)
Additional threats to vultures include other accidental and intentional poisonings, electrocution by power lines; a decline in ungulates as prey; habitat changes; and the removal of carcasses, which deprives them of food.
Did you know?
— Cornell Lab of Ornithology
One of the oldest found musical instruments is a 40,000-year-old flute made from the bone of a vulture’s wing.
— Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon
Vultures don’t circle over animals that are about to die. They ride the thermals, columns of warm air that rise from the earth, gaining altitude without having to flap their long wings.
— Missouri Department of Conservation