King vulture

The most colorful vulture, with the orange cruncle

Renato Augusto Martins

The King vulture is a large bird of prey from the New World family Cathartidae. This species is distinguishable from other vultures by its predominantly white body plumage, sharply contrasted by black flight feathers (remiges) and a striking, multi-colored head and neck. The bird’s head and neck are nearly bald, showing skin with red, orange, purple, and yellow hues, which are thought to play a role in thermoregulation and potentially in social interactions.

A conspicuous red ring surrounds the King vulture’s eyes, and its powerful beak, designed to tear through tough carcasses, ends in a sharp hook. The caruncle’s fleshy growth above its nostrils adds to its distinctive facial features and is particularly prominent in adult birds.

These birds are indeed kings regarding their range and dominance at a carcass. They are found across a wide geographic range in the Americas, from southern Mexico to Central America to northern Argentina. Their habitats include tropical lowland forests where they soar high above the canopy.

Contrary to popular belief and unlike some Old World vultures, the King vulture does not have a well-developed sense of smell. Instead, they rely on their keen eyesight to spot carrion from a great distance while in flight. They often observe the behavior of other scavenger species as an indicator of where a carcass might be located.

King vultures are solitary or occur in pairs and are rarely seen in large groups. Their social structure at feeding sites is hierarchical, and despite their bright coloring, they can be quite dominant, often displacing other scavenger species despite their relatively lower numbers.

When it comes to reproduction, King vultures are not prolific breeders. They typically lay a single egg, which both parents incubate. Nesting sites are usually located in hollow stumps or on the forest floor, a trait uncommon among tree-nesting vultures.

Distribution

Country
Population est.
Status
Year
Comments
Argentina
2016
Belize
2016
Bolivia
2016
Brazil
2016
Colombia
2016
Costa Rica
2016
Ecuador
2016
El Salvador
2016
French Guiana
2016
Guatemala
2016
Guyana
2016
Honduras
2016
Mexico
2016
Nicaragua
2016
Panama
2016
Paraguay
2016
Peru
2016
Suriname
2016
Trinidad & Tobago
2016
Uruguay
2016
Breeding
Venezuela
2016

Did you know?

  • When the king arrives, other birds, including other vultures, make a way!
  • They dominate over the carcass.
  • They live solitary life away from human habitations, residing in wooded areas and lowland forests.

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No