Scientific Name Sarcoramphus papa
Conservation Status Least Concern
The king vulture features a strikingly coloured neck and head which is coloured shades of orange, yellow and purple. These colours are areas of bare skin, this is an adaptation to prevent bits of bacteria from the dead animals on which they feed getting caught in their skin. Their beak is coloured black with an orange top. At the top of the beak is a yellow coloured fleshy wattle. Their feet are grey. The eyes are silver, white or straw coloured.
From head to tail the adult king vulture measure 71 to 81cm (28 to 32in). Their wingspan can range from 1.2-2m (4-6.6ft). They may weigh up to 3.7kg (8lb).
Wild lifespan is yet to be studied. In captivity, some of the oldest king vultures have lived to 30 years of age.
King Vultures are carnivores. Most their food is acquired through scavenging animal carcasses. Their beak is designed to tear flesh.
At a carcass, the smaller vultures will allow the king vulture to eat first. This is helpful to the other vultures as often the king vulture is the only animal capable of tearing open the hide. They only move away from the food if an Andean condor, which is larger, is present.
South and Central America is the native home of the King Vulture. Here they can be found throughout Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Across their range, they occupy a wide variety of habitats including grasslands, lowland forests, swamps and savannas. They are typically found in areas where at least some forest cover is nearby.
Breeding takes place during the dry season. For the king vulture courtship consists of an elaborate display in which a range of hissing and wheezing signs are made alongside visual communication. Pairs appear to bond for life though this has only been observed in captivity.
A nest is formed on the ground, in a tree stump, rocky crevice or log hollow. Often not much is done to form the nest apart from scraping out the ground.
A single egg is deposited in the nest which is creamy white. The parents will share incubation duties for a period of 52 to 58 weeks. In the event the egg does not survive the parents lay another.
At birth the chick is covered in down and the eyes are already open. Their development progresses rapidly with the chicks preening and pecking themselves in just 3 days. The parents feed their chick by regurgitating food.
Flight occurs for the first time at 3 months old. It will take 18 months for the adult plumage to develop. Their first-time breeding is generally at four or five years old.
King vultures live in small groups generally formed by a pair and their young. Their days are spent sitting in the canopy or flying above the trees looking for food. Flight is dependent on wing currents to carry them as they do not flap their wings to fly.
Due to the lack of a voice box most of the king vulture’s vocalisations consist of low croaking sounds.
Predators of the king vulture include large cats and snakes who may prey on eggs and young. Most attacks on adult birds occur at a carcass.
Vultures play an important role in the ecosystem by cleaning up rotting carcasses.
King vultures had an important role in Mayan society. It was viewed as a carrier of messages between the gods and the Mayans.
Top – By Hein waschefort (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Middle – By s shepherd from dayton, nj [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom – By Gary J. Wood from Toronto, ON, Canada (King Vulture) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons