Vulture

Vultures are scavenging birds found throughout the world except for Australia and other oceanic islands. They are recognizable from their bald heads (except the bearded vulture) and large wings. These birds are generally classified into two different types – the Old World vultures and the New World vultures.

Scientific Classification

Animalia
Chordata
Aves
Cathartidae (New World) and Accipitridae (Old World)

Scientific Classification

Animalia
Chordata
Aves
Cathartidae (New World) and Accipitridae (Old World)

They have played a beneficial role in the ecosystem by consuming carcasses and rotting flesh, keeping the disease transmission rate low. Some parts of the world, especially Asia, allow carcasses of domestic animals to be disposed of by these birds.

Types of Vultures
Types of Vultures

List of the Common Types of Vulture Species

There are 23 species of vultures. These include 16 Old World vultures, which are from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and 7 New World vultures, found in North and South America.

Old World Vultures

  • Cinereous Vulture
  • Griffon Vulture
  • White-Rumped Vulture
  • Rüppell’s Vulture
  • Indian Vulture
  • Slender-Billed Vulture
  • Himalayan Vulture
  • White-Backed Vulture
  • Cape Vulture
  • Hooded Vulture
  • Red-Headed Vulture
  • Lappet-Faced Vulture
  • White-Headed Vulture
  • Bearded Vulture
  • Egyptian Vulture
  • Palm-Nut Vulture

New World Vultures

Vulture

Physical Description and Appearance

Size: Length: 2-4.9 ft (0.6 – 1.5 m)

The palm-nut vulture is the smallest known vulture at 2 ft, while the Himalayan griffin is the largest at 4.9 ft.

Weight: 3.7 – 33 pounds (1.7 – 15 kg)

The lightest vulture is the palm-nut vulture at 3.7 pounds, while the Andean condor is the heaviest at 33 pounds.

Body and Coloration: Vultures are giant-sized compared to other birds. All species have a wide wingspan and a sharp, hooked beak. Their bald head and neck are bright red, while their plumage ranges from black to brown to white.

Vulture Picture
Vulture Image

Distribution

Old World vultures are native to Africa, Asia, and Europe, while New World vultures are found primarily in North and South America.

Where do they live

Most vulture species can be found in open areas, commonly roosting on cliffs, tall trees, or on the ground.

How long do they live

On average, vultures have varied lifespans amongst the different species, ranging from 11 to 47 years. For example, a black vulture lives for 10 years, and the king vulture has a lifespan of 30 years.

Vulture Flying
Vulture Eye

What do they eat

All vultures are detritivorous and eat carrion, except for the palm-nut vultures, which feed on the fruit of the oil palm. Sometimes, if these sources are available, they will hunt small prey like insects, lizards, smaller birds, and rodents.

Behavior

  • Early in the morning, vultures often sit with their wings spread wide in a way that is referred to as the “horaltic pose”. This has several uses, like increasing the surface area of their bodies so that they are quickly warmed by the sun, drying off their feathers, and killing off bacteria accumulated while feeding.
  • Unlike most other raptors or birds of prey, vultures are social and often feed, fly, or roost in large flocks.
  • Although New World vultures make primarily hissing and grunting sounds, Old World vultures make a wide range of chatter, croaks, grunts, and screeches.
  • When they are upset, their heads turn red, like they are blushing.
  • Some vultures, like the turkey vulture, defecate on their feet to cool off during hot weather.
Vulture Talons
Vulture Head

Adaptations

  • The vulture’s bald head helps them regulate their body temperature by exposing part of their skin to the open environment and prevents infections when eating rotting and decayed meat.
  • Vultures have large wings allowing them to remain aloft for long periods while searching for food.
  • Their beaks are hooked for tearing into flesh, though some of them have difficulty piercing stronger hides.
  • A robust immune system gives them the ability to eat rotting and possibly infected meat without getting sick. Lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, have stomach acid that is more caustic than battery acid to help them digest bones.
  • These birds generally have keen eyesight, capable of spotting carcasses from great distances.
  • Old World vultures rely exclusively on sight to locate prey, while New World vultures use their powerful sense of smell to find carrion even from great heights.
  • Most vultures have a large throat pouch called a crop that carries excess food.
Vulture Claws
Vulture Beak

How do they reproduce

Most vultures are monogamous and mate for life. Old World vultures construct large nests consisting of sticks in trees or on cliffs, sometimes in large colonies. They generally lay one egg at a time.

New World vultures do not build nests but lay their eggs in bare scrapes in natural cavities in cliffs or trees. These vultures do not nest colonially. The larger species lay one egg, incubated for 2 months, while the smaller species lay two eggs that need a month of incubation.

Vulture Nest
Vulture Egg

Life Cycle

Both parents help incubate and feed the chicks. They don’t drink milk; instead, the parent regurgitates meat into the chick’s mouth.

When the juvenile is young, the parents pick up small pieces of food to feed the chick, but as it gets older, it starts to pick up these items on its own. Chicks remain in the nest for 2-3 months, depending on their parents, until they learn to acquire food independently. When they are ready to fledge, at 3-6 months old, the offspring are nearly as big as their parents, fully feathered but with differing coloration.

Baby Vulture
Vulture Chick

Conservation

According to a study in 2016, out of the 22 vulture species, 9 are “Critically Endangered”, 3 are “Endangered”, 4 are “Near Threatened”, and 6 are “Least Concern”. While not directly threatened due to hunting or poaching, vultures suffer from several indirect threats like poison in the system of the carcasses they feed on or wind energy related collisions.

On 20th June 2019, the corpses of over 500 vultures from different species were found in northern Botswana. It was suspected that poachers poisoned the bodies of 3 elephants to avoid detection by the birds, whose presence alerts rangers to any dead animals and indicates poaching activity.

Vulture – FAQs

1. What is a group of vultures called?

Depending on where they are, a group of vultures can have different names. Those in flight are called a kettle, while committee refers to those resting on the ground or in trees. Lastly, the feeding group has been categorized as wake.

2. Are vultures decomposers?

No, vultures are scavengers, not decomposers. Vultures can only consume dead material, not break it down into simpler components.

3. Do vultures eat live animals?

Since most vultures do not possess strong beaks or feet, they cannot hunt live animals. Sometimes, they may attack sick or young prey if the opportunity arises.

4. Do vultures attack humans?

No, despite their fearsome appearance, vultures aren’t dangerous. They don’t have the ability or the interest to attack humans.

5. Why do vultures circle?

Though the common assumption is that vultures circling over someone means that they are about to die, the birds are using rising warm air currents to fly. Since they remain aloft with the help of these currents for long periods, these birds are seen circling in the sky.

6. Are buzzards and vultures the same?

While the two are often interchangeably named, especially in North America, they are two distinct species.

7. Do vultures eat dead vultures?

No, they do not eat other vultures by choice. The only instances where this may happen are periods of extreme food scarcity where no food is available.

Vulture Pics
Vulture Bird

Interesting Facts

  • Vultures have impacted myths worldwide – with the prominent examples being Jatayu from the Ramayana and Nekhbet from Ancient Egypt.
  • People living in Ancient Egypt believed that all vultures were female, spontaneously born from eggs without the intervention of a male. Therefore, the vulture was linked to motherhood and the cycle of death and rebirth for their assumed ability to turn the “death” they feed on into new life.
  • If there are vultures near one’s house, it is a sign that carcasses of dead animals are nearby. However, symbolically speaking, vultures are often considered an ill omen whose presence is foreboding.
  • These birds have appeared in several Disney movies, most notably Trigger and Nutsy in the 1973 animated feature Robin Hood and Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy, and Dizzy in the 1967 Jungle Book.

References