- The two families of vultures are classified together based on superficial similarities. Both families have weak feet adapted more for walking than clutching, and feathers that are mostly absent from their heads and necks.
- 60 to 140 cm (24 to 55 in.); Andean condors have a wingspan of up to 3 m (10 ft.) making them one of the world's largest flying birds.
- Maximum weight of more than 12 kg (25 lbs.) for the Andean condor
- All vultures feed on carrion (animal carcasses), except for palm-nut vultures (Gyphohierax angolensis), which feed on the fruit of the oil palm. Some species also hunt small prey, such as insects, lizards, smaller birds and rodents. Pieces of decaying meat and skin are less apt to stick to bare heads than to a thick mat of feathers.
- Vultures usually have one mate a year. Nests are constructed using sticks and leaves, and are built in trees and cliffs. The same nest may be used for several years.
- Clutch Size
- Most species produce 1 chick, and the male and female share parental responsibilities. They take turns with one sitting on the nest while its mate finds food that, upon return, is regurgitated for the hatchling.
- Sexual Maturity
- 5 to 7 years, dependent on species
- Life Span
- 18 years or more; large species up to 50 years
- Varies by species
- Varies by species
- Varies by species
- IUCN: Many species listed; includes 4 species listed as Critically Endangered
CITES: Many species listed
USFWS: California condors are listed as Endangered
Vultures are such efficient feeders that they can pick the body of a small animal clean in less than half an hour. Some vultures go one step further by eating the bones as well, thus making sure no part of a meal is wasted.
When vultures bask after meals, the heat of the sun dries any potentially bacteria-ridden bits of food that easily fall off, helping them remain healthy.
Vultures have keen eyesight. It is believed they are able to spot a three-foot carcass from four miles away on the open plains. In some species, when an individual sees a carcass it begins to circle above it. This draws the attention of other vultures that then join in.
Once the vultures have landed, they fight and bicker over feeding spots. For the most part, many vulture species are relatively silent, but not when it comes to a prime place at the dinner table!
Once on the carcass, vultures plant their feet for stability and pull at the flesh with their beaks. Many species of vultures feed together with little competition, because they do not feed on the same kind of meat within the carcass.
When white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) of Africa spot dying or dead animals, they descend upon it, plant their feet in the remains, and pull the flesh apart with their beaks.
New World vultures include Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) and California condors (Gymnogyps californianus). The extremely large Andean condors eat mostly carrion, although they may attack small or weak animals such as newborn llamas, lambs, or old goats. Despite their great size, they fly effortlessly for hundreds of miles in search of food and some have been seen gliding at an altitude of 4,472 m (15,000 ft.).
Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are widespread across the Americas. Rare for birds of prey, turkey vultures actually have a keen sense of smell, while black vultures rely on their eyesight to find food.
For more information about raptors, explore the Raptors InfoBook.
Ecology and Conservation
Vultures serve an important function as nature's garbage collectors, helping to keep the environment clean of waste. Habitats must be preserved and pollutants eliminated so these important predators are not lost.
Many species of vultures that live throughout Africa have a great impact on their surroundings. They vary from small birds with slender bills, such as hooded vultures, to large hunters with heavy bills, such as African white-backed vultures. These important adaptations help vultures survive and perform important roles in the environment. Vultures feed on the remains of dead animals, sticking their heads deep into the body cavity to pick bits of food.
Vultures play a prominent role in African folklore. Their ability to show up wherever there is a carcass leads many to believe they dream the location of food or use telepathy.
Turkey vultures are so resistant to botulism that, when tested, they showed no ill effects when injected with enough botulinus to kill 300,000 guinea pigs. Vultures are immensely important for removing potentially dangerous, bacteria-ridden carcasses from the environment.
Vultures have long been misunderstood and persecuted by humans, suffering from loss of habitat, illegal hunting and poisons that can accumulate through time in their prey. New World vultures in America, such as the extremely rare California condor, have also been devastated by hunting and habitat loss. Hopefully, captive breeding and release programs will help these birds. Another rare species is the European black vulture (Aegypius monachus). There may only be 800 European black vultures left worldwide, but fortunately more than 20 chicks have been hatched through captive breeding programs.
Brown, L. and D. Amadon. Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World, Vol. 1. Wellfleet Press, NJ, 1989.
Dewitt, L. Eagles, Hawks, and other Birds of Prey. Franklin Watts, NY, 1989.
Perrins, C.M. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. Prentice-Hall, NY, 1990.
Perrins, C.M. and A.L.A. Middleton, Eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. Facts on File, Inc., NY, 1985.