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King Vulture
Sarcoramphus papa

Accipitriforme Order – Cathartidae Family

Length: 71-91 cm
Wingspan: 180-198 cm
Weight: 3000-3750 g

LONGEVITY: Up to 30 years in captivity

King Vulture is one of the most beautiful and coloured raptors of the entire world.

King Vulture is rarely seen due to its behaviour, but this species in not threatened at this moment.
It has wide range, but some declines occur due to habitat destruction and deforestation, and poaching.
This species is protected by laws in some countries.
Several legends mention the King Vulture in South America. It also appears in numerous stamps of countries within its range. 
Fr : Sarcoramphe roi
All : Königsgeier
Esp : Zopilote Rey
Ital : Avvoltoio reale
Nd : Koningsgier
Russe : Королевский гриф

Photographers :

Patrick Ingremeau

Marc Chrétien

Maxime Dechelle

Text and pictures of captive birds at London Zoo by Nicole Bouglouan

Sources :

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD Vol 2 by Josep del Hoyo-Andrew Elliot-Jordi Sargatal - Lynx Edicions - ISBN: 8487334156

A GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF COLOMBIA by Steven L. Hilty and William L. Brown - Princeton University Press – ISBN 069108372X

A GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF MEXICO AND NORTHERN CENTRAL AMERICA by  Steve N. G. Howell, Sophie Webb - Oxford University Press - ISBN: 0198540124

L’ENCYCLOPEDIE MONDIALE DES OISEAUX - Dr Christopher M. Perrins -  BORDAS - ISBN: 2040185607

PORTRAITS D’OISEAUX GUYANAIS - Groupe d'étude et de protection des oiseaux en Guyane (GEPOG) - Ibis rouge éditions - ISBN: 2844501842

Avibase (Lepage Denis)

Wikipedia (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia)


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Page Family Cathartidae

Page Birds of prey

Summary Cards


Adult has white plumage overall, with pale buff or pinkish wash on back and shoulders.
On the wings, alula, flight feathers and upper primary coverts are black. The short, slightly rounded tail is black, as the rump.
We can see a thick grey ruff at the base of the orange-red bare neck.

Head is dark grey, with reddish centre of the crown, nape and eye-ring. We can see some shades of purple on the head sides.

The bill is red with black base. The bird shows orange-yellow multi-lobbed wattles at the bill base. Eyes are white. Legs and feet are pale grey. The claws are relatively short, and the feet are used for perching and walking, and are not adapted to capture living preys.  

Both sexes are similar.  
The juvenile has grey-black plumage and bare parts. Eyes and bill are dark.
The immature has blackish plumage overall, but it shows some features of the adult head-pattern.
The young needs 4-5 years to attain full adult plumage.

The Cathartid Vultures lacks the syrinx and the closely associated muscles, and they are almost unable to produce some sounds or calls.
However, the King Vulture may produce hissing, rattling and sneezing noises. They are vocal during the breeding season and if threatened. They give warning series of various noises.

King Vulture frequents mainly humid tropical forests, but it may be seen sometimes in more open areas such as savannahs and grasslands. It prefers undisturbed forests where large mammals are living.

King Vulture is found in Central and South America, from Mexico to northern Argentina.

King Vulture is a scavenger and may be seen at carcasses with other Cathartid vultures.
Its powerful bill allows it to tear open the skin of large dead mammals. This large vulture is usually dominant, but not aggressive against other raptors.
However, this species is often seen in family groups when feeding, with one pair and young. They find food by using their smell sense, but also by seeing groups of vultures around carcasses.   

King Vulture spends much of its time taking the sun for saving the energy, and preening its wing feathers.  
It is resident in its range.

This vulture often perches under cover, high in trees or soars very high in the sky. That is why the observations of courtship displays come from zoos where these birds are kept.
They perform some displays. Both mates walk on the ground, drawing circles, while flapping the wings. They utter loud wheezing and snorting noises during the copulation. The pair-bonds are usually for life.

King Vulture is able to soar on thermal currents during several hours. It glides in wide circles for hours with wings held flat, and with the hand slightly raised. Wing beats are deep and powerful. It rarely flaps while soaring, often very high in the sky.
It soars alone or in pairs, very rarely in groups.
While flying, we can see its heavy silhouette, the short tail and the black and white plumage making this bird unmistakable.

King Vulture does not build any nest. It nests on the ground or in stump of tree, always at low level. There are not any lining or addition of nesting material.
This species breeds during the dry season.

Female lays one single egg. Incubation lasts about two months, 55 to 58 days, shared by both parents which regularly take turns.
The chick is naked at hatching, but it acquires very soon pure white down. Adults bring food in their claws, but they also feed the chick by regurgitation.
The young probably fledges at 3-4 months, but it depends on its parents for food during about one year.

King Vulture is a scavenger and feeds almost exclusively on carrion. It is able to tear open the skin of large carcasses thanks to the powerful bill. It mainly feeds on skin, ligaments and cartilages, and all the hardest parts of the carcass. It has raspy tongue, very useful to pull the flesh off of the bones.
It also eats dead fishes along the shores of the streams.