They may not be beautiful, but vultures play a vital role in keeping diseases in check. They do so by stripping carcasses quickly and efficiently. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it!

I consider vultures to be endlessly fascinating in their habits and lifestyles. They are truly the garbage men and recycling team of nature!

A Face Only a Mother Could Love?

I’ve been very lucky in my travels to see a variety of these birds; from common Turkey and Black Vultures in North America to South America’s Andean Condor and the rare Griffon Vulture soaring high above the steep cliffs on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. But my favorite vulture that I’ve seen in the wild has got to be the strikingly marked white, black and orange-colored King Vulture of Central America.

King Vulture in Honduras photographed by Steve Shunk

Spooky Vulture Facts

  • The vulture has few predators. Its most common defensive tactic is to hurl projectile vomit at his adversary and fly away.
  • Vultures can digest meat in any stage of decay, and withstand diseases that would kill any other creature.
  • Vultures urinate to cool off (they lack sweat glands) and to disinfect their legs. Vulture urine kills any germs picked up walking through a carcass.
  • Their head is bald, making it difficult for bacteria to stick to them when probing for flesh deep inside a carcass. What little bacteria remains on their bald head gets baked off in the sun.
  • Vultures were once regarded as largely beneficial and were well-tolerated in human-populated areas. A negative attitude toward these scavengers was developed in the early 1900’s when people became concerned that vultures might increase the spread of disease, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
  • In Africa, witch doctors grind down vulture brains for the magic they are believed to possess.

Black Vulture in Texas photographed by Steve Shunk

Some of my favorite vulture species

The California Condor

California Condor with ID tags

California Condors are a type of vulture that was once widespread throughout North America, but the species is now restricted to California and a few other states where they have been reintroduced. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “California Condors have bounced back from a low of only 27 captive individuals in 1987. Thanks to captive breeding and release programs, these majestic scavengers are now pairing up and breeding in the wild, and intensive nest management programs are helping to ensure that their wild chicks have the best chance of survival. As of 2017, the total world population was 463 individuals, with 290 birds flying free in the wild!”

Condor in Arizona

  • They may look scary, but California Condors are not predators; they are strictly scavengers that feed on dead animals. They can consume up to 4 pounds of food and then go several days before their next meal.
  • The California Condor was at the brink of extinction around 35 years ago. However, through heroic conservation efforts, they’ve made an impressive comeback.

Learn more about the California Condor

  • Website of the San Diego Zoo; the first facility in the world to hatch a condor egg.
  • Watch a live webcam of a condor nest with chicks.

The King Vulture

King Vulture

The King Vulture is a New World Vulture, distinguishable from other vulture species by their bright colors. Their uniquely colorful appearance boasts white, yellow, orange, red and purple. They average around 2.5 feet tall and can weigh up to 8 lbs. Both males and females have a caruncle, a fleshy wattle similar to those of turkeys, on their beaks.

Mayan legend suggests the King Vulture was a carrier of messages between humans and the Gods.

The Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture

The Griffon Vulture is typically brown or black with a white underbelly and collar. They average about 3.5 feet tall. They live in the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia.

Can you spot the excellently camouflaged Griffon Vultures on this cliff below?

Griffon Vultures in Sardinia by Steve Shunk

We had a challenging time doing so, even when viewed through a spotting scope since they were so high above us on the coast of Sardinia and their forms blended so perfectly with the gray granite rocks and the tawny lichens. Learn more and view videos of Griffon Vultures on the Internet Bird Collection website.

These Old World Vultures died out in many areas due to poisoning, lack of food, getting caught in electrical lines, habitat disturbance, and even shooting and egg robbing. But thanks to strong conservation efforts, these vultures have been reintroduced in many of these areas and worldwide populations are on the rise.

The Andean Condor

Andean Condor

The Andean Condor resides in South America, as its name suggests. It is the national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Adorned with black and white feathers, they are the largest flying birds in the world. They can weigh up to 33 pounds with an impressive 10 ft wingspan.

Andean Condor in Flight

They’re also one of the longest living birds, sometimes exceeding 70 years! However, these condors are threatened by habitat loss and persecution by farmers under the misconception that they are a threat to livestock. Education and captive breeding programs have been underway since the late 1980’s, but they reproduce very slowly and populations are still decreasing.

Books About Vultures

Why Many Vultures are Endangered

Tragically, these majestic birds are now in steep decline worldwide due to hunting, pesticides, poisoning, and collisions with wind turbines and high-power lines. According to a study conducted in 2016, 9 out of 22 vulture species are critically endangered.

Many species of vultures are rapidly declining and some are even facing extinction. In South Asia, residues of a veterinary drug called Diclofenac has been banned after it was found to be the cause of numerous vulture deaths. However, this action was not taken timely and it is unclear if the vultures will ever make a full comeback there.

In Central Africa, efforts are being made to save vulture populations, which sharply declined due to the bushmeat trade, as well as intentional and unintentional poisoning.

King Vulture

Learn More About Vultures

-You can learn more about vultures and the many threats they face in “Why Africa’s Vultures Are Collapsing Toward Extinction” on the  National Geographic website. 

-Science News: Vultures are vulnerable to extinction.

Vulpro, a conservation group in South Africa

Vultures


Vultures: Kings of the Dead
A kid-friendly yet educational video that provides a great overview of vultures of the world. Hosted by super cool paleo-science illustrator, Danielle Dufault.


Video: Why I love vultures: TED talk by raptor biologist Munir Virani.


Now that you know a little more about vultures, I hope you’ve discovered how fascinating they are and gained some appreciation for the vital roles they play in the ecosystems they inhabit.  If you liked this story, please share it with others!

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