Keep Calm and Carrion: 8 Amazing Vultures

Egyptian Vulture

(images via: Mallorca Hiking, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings and Bridgeman)

The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is a small species with predominantly white plumage and contrasting black flight feathers. Nicknamed “Pharaoh’s Chicken”, Egyptian Vultures inhabit a wide latitudinal region stretching from the Canary Islands in the west to India in the east.

(image via: Wolfstad)

The Egyptian Vulture’s sharp, black-tipped beak is bright yellow with the color continuing back to and over its bare face. The birds replenish the carotenoid pigments required to maintain their yellow skin coloration by eating herbivore feces.

(images via: Foto Martien)

Birds such as crows have been observed using “tools” before, but most people wouldn’t guess vultures were toll-users as well. Indeed they are! Egyptian Vultures are egg-eaters should the opportunity present itself and ostrich eggs offer a wealth of nutrition inside their thick shells. Egyptian Vultures use stones grasped in their beaks to hammer through these shells, which makes one wonder how they arrived at this technique in the first place.

Andean Condor

(images via: Hawk Experience and Arkive)

The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) rivals its California cousin for the title of “bird with the widest wingspan,” as those of large male specimens can reach up to 3.2 meters (10.5 ft) across. Males are generally larger than females with the former weighing up to 15 kg (33 lbs) for males and the latter up to 11 kg (24 lbs). Andean Condors are primarily scavengers and have remarkably long lifespans; captive specimens have lived into their late seventies!

(images via: Oiseaux-Birds)

In contrast to the California Condor, Andean Condors are much more subdued in appearance. Mature birds are mainly black-feathered with a contrasting ruff of white, downy feathers circling their necks. Males feature prominent wattles and caruncles which, unlike those of domestic roosters, are dull red to dark gray in color.

Turkey Vulture

(images via: Wild Florida, Lakeside Nature Center, Naturephoto-CZ and Carolina Bird Club)

America’s most familiar vulture, the Turkey Vulture also goes by the names Buzzard or “Carrion Crow” though it’s significantly larger than even the largest crows or ravens. Turkey Vultures can further be distinguished by their bare, bald, red heads and white-tipped beaks.

(image via: INKity)

Turkey Vultures are not considered to be a threatened species although they are legally protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Though they certainly don’t act like Wild Turkeys, Turkey Vultures look a lot like them from a distance which is why they acquired their colloquial name.

(images via: Falls of the Ohio State Park and Birds of South Carolina)

Turkey Vultures prefer fresh carrion and, unusually among vultures, possess a finely tuned sense of smell. Other, more scent-challenged species of vultures and condors have learned to follow Turkey Vultures to feeding sites where they take over the carcass, using their stronger beaks to tear open the hide. Once the larger birds have eaten their fill, the Turkey Vultures move in for the leftovers – everyone’s a winner when it comes to a vulture’s dinner!

King Vulture

(image via: Joan Embery)

We’ve saved the best-looking vulture for last and yes, there ARE attractive vultures! Take the King Vulture for instance. This New World vulture is the third largest vulture in the Americas, weighing from 2.7 to 4.5 kilograms (6–10 lbs) with wingspans of up to 2 meters (6.6 ft). Besides its impressive array of shades on and around its head, the King Vulture sports a fleshy, bright yellow to orange caruncle on the upper portion of its beak, the purpose of which is not clear.

(images via: For The Public Eye, Wikipedia, Falcons of the World and The Beauty of Animals)

King Vultures are the only vulture to live predominantly in heavily forested areas, where its usual prey are carcasses of tree sloths or tapirs. Both males and females bear caruncles on their beaks but males differ by having mainly white plumage as opposed to the darker feathers covering females. King Vultures live up to 30 years in captivity and are not considered to be threatened though there are signs they are in gradual decline due to loss of their jungle habitats.

(image via: Annamiticus)

The fourth International Vulture Awareness Day on September 1st, 2012 was a soaring success with over 150 zoos, bird parks and conservation organizations participating. Vultures may not be pretty but they’ve got a dirty job and somebody’s gotta do it. Hopefully, greater awareness of what these birds do for us will help us do more for them.