King Vulture King Vulture
King Vulture

Scientific Classification

Common Name
king vulture
Genus Species
Sarcoramphus papa (translates as "the pope's fleshy beak" referring to the bright orange skin on the top of the orange beak

Fast Facts

The king vulture has white eyes with red rings, broad wings, a short tail, black wings and tail (above), and an orange beak. The underside of the wings and chest are white. The head and neck are bare.
Approximately 67.5 to 80 cm (27 to 32 in.); wingspan of 1.2 to 1.66 m (4 to 5.5 ft)
About 2.7 to 4.5 kg (6 to 10 lbs.)
Mainly feeds on carrion
32 to 38 days; usually only a single chick is hatched
Life Span
20 to 25 years in the wild; longer in captivity
Central Mexico to Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina
Inhabits savanna, tropical forest, and semi-forested lowlands
Global: Partners in Flight estimated the population to number fewer than 50,000 individuals . Ferguson-Lees et al. (2001) suggest it is likely to number 1,000 to 10,000 individuals, roughly equating to 670 to 6,700 mature individuals.
IUCN: Least concern
CITES: Appendix II
USFWS: Not listed

Fun Facts

There are several theories as to why the king vulture was given its name; one theory suggests it comes from a Mayan legend that believed the vulture to be a messenger between humans and the gods and the vulture was personified as a Lord or King.

How king vultures find their food is a topic many scientists do not agree about.  Some say they rely on their excellent eyesight while others say it is their sense of smell. Some authorities believe the vultures merely follow other scavenging birds to the food.

The king vulture has one of the most powerful beaks of all American vultures and can open carcasses that other vultures cannot. For this reason, they often eat first and other vultures feed off the remains.

The head and neck of a King Vulture are featherless. This helps to prevent bacteria and blood from "fowling" up the feathers on the head.

Ecology and Conservation

The king vulture is a scavenger and feeds on carrion which could potentially spread disease. They are also able to utilize a food resource that few animals can exploit.

The population is suspected to be in decline due to ongoing habitat destruction


Brown, L. and D. Amadon. Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World. Wellfleet Press, Secaucas, New Jersey. 1989.

Grady, W. Vulture - Nature's Ghastly Gourmet. Greystone Books,Vancouver, B.C. 1997.

Grossman, M. L. and J. Hamlet. Birds of Prey of the World. CrownPublishers Inc., New York City. 1964.

Belize Zoo:

BirdLife International. 2016. Sarcoramphus papa. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22697645A93627003. Downloaded on 12 November 2018.