Cathartiformes – New world vultures

Their scavenging habits made them a usual addition to scenes in ‘Wild West’ films

An order of birds that encompasses the New World vultures (family Cathartidae) and the prehistoric Teratornithidae that represent a unique and fascinating branch of the avian tree. This group is characterized by their role as nature’s clean-up crew, efficiently recycling nutrients into the ecosystem through their scavenging habits.

The Cathartidae family comprises five species of vultures and two species of condors, and each adapted to their specific environments in the temperate to tropical regions of the Americas. They range widely, from the forests of Canada to the southernmost reaches of South America. The New World vultures include the well-known turkey vulture, the black vulture, the Andean vulture, the California vulture, and the greater yellow-headed vulture. The two species of condors, the Andean condor and the California condor, are among the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere.

These birds are often observed in the sky, utilizing thermal updrafts to soar with minimal effort. Their soaring ability allows them to cover large territories in their search for carrion, which is their primary food source. The featherless heads of these birds are not just for show; they serve a practical purpose, as a lack of feathers makes it easier to stay clean when feeding on carcasses.

The social structure and behavior of these birds are complex and diverse. While some species, like the black vulture, are highly social, others are more solitary outside of the breeding season. These vultures also play an important role in controlling disease by consuming dead animals that could otherwise be breeding grounds for harmful pathogens.

Cathartiformes have a rich fossil record with the Teratornithidae family, including some of the largest flying birds ever discovered, like Argentavis magnificens, which lived six million years ago and had a wingspan estimated to be up to 7 meters wide.