King vulture

Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Cathartidae
Genus and Species: Sarcoramphus papa
  • black and white feathered king vulture staring ominously at you with beady, white eyes, and a colorful yellow and red head
  • King vulture close-up of head showing intricate patterning and coloration on the bare skin of its head.
  • King vulture detail of head and colorful yellow and red neck skin
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King vulture

The largest New World vulture except for the condors, king vultures range from Mexico to Argentina dining on carrion.

Physical Description

A distinctive bird, the king vulture is easily recognized. The wings are short and quite broad and from the neck down the birds are white with a black band running along the rear edge of the wings. A small collar of feathers at the base of the neck is blackish-gray while the bare skin on the head and neck is orange, green, yellow and purplish blue. The crown is covered with small bristle-like feathers and a fleshy wattle directly above the nostrils. King vultures do not tolerate cold conditions well. Differences between male and female birds are very slight, and surgical work is usually required to sex birds.


King vultures grow to about 2.5 feet (0.8 meters) tall and may get to a weight of 8 pounds (3.7 kilograms) making them the largest New World vulture, except for the condors.

Native Habitat

King vultures range from southern Mexico to southern Argentina, where they prefer densely forested tropical lowland habitat.

Food/Eating Habits

King vultures eat carrion. They have a thick, strong beak which is well adapted for tearing, and long, thick claws for holding the meat. They have keen eyesight and sense of smell that they use to find their food.

Once the king vulture lands, the other birds make way for it. Though it appears to dominate over a feeding site, this vulture actually relies on other stronger-beaked carrion-eaters to initially rip open the hide of a carcass. Often the first at a carcass site, this vulture will eat the eyes of the animal while waiting for the other vultures. Eyes are both highly nutritious and easy to reach before the animal's hide is opened.

At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, they are fed rats.

Reproduction and Development

King vultures nest on the ground, in tree stumps, hollow logs or other natural cavities. Their nest consists of very little material; usually just scratched out of the existing soil. The king vulture usually lays a solitary egg. Both parents share the responsibilities of incubation.

Although king vultures are not yet listed as endangered or threatened, there has been a substantial decrease in wild populations largely due to habitat destruction.