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39 Colorful King Vulture Facts (Sarcoramphus papa)

In this huge guide, you'll find 39 colorful king vulture facts. You'll learn about their habits, young and mating, feeding, and even their colorful caruncles. Plus tons of photos and videos!

King Vulture facts

Table of Contents

39 King Vulture Facts: What You Need To Know

Their colors are eye-popping. They poop on themselves (on purpose). Their feeding habits are almost too gross to mention. And they don't even build a nest for their young.

Meet the king vulture!

As some of the largest, brightest scavengers in Mexico, Central and South America, king vultures occupy a unique niche in the animal kingdom. You might not want to invite them into your home, but they're fascinating to read about, and they perform a lot of necessary functions in the wild.

Let's take a look at a few king vulture facts so that you can learn more about these freaky, fantastic creatures for yourself.

1. What does the king vulture look like?

The bodies of king vultures look like regular birds. They have predominantly white bodies with black-tipped feathers scattered across their wings and tails, and their claws are long, sharp and gray. Their figures are big and stocky. They look exactly how you'd expect a bird of prey to look.

When you see their heads, however, all of your previous notions will go flying out of the window.

King vultures explode into color from the neck up: Their skin comes in various shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, pink and blue. They also have bright red rings around their eyes and warty orange caruncles dotting their faces.

Long story short, these are colorful birds!

King vultures

Here's what a baby king vulture looks like:

Baby king vulture

2. Is the king vulture bald?

King vultures are completely bald. It's a defense mechanism against infection; they're scavengers who feed on the dead flesh of other animals, so they go rooting through carcasses a lot, and any hairs or feathers on their heads would quickly become mottled with blood.

Interestingly, this means that their rainbow coloring is directly on their skin. It isn't plumage. It's pigmentation.

3. Why is the king vulture considered a “New World” vulture?

“New World” vultures are from North and South America. “Old World” vultures are from Asia, Africa, and Europe.

There are some marked differences in the two types of vultures. For example, most New World vultures don't have voice boxes and don't build nests. These things are common in Old World vultures. Meanwhile, Old World vultures have strong legs and feet while New World vultures are weaker in their lower bodies.

Watch on YouTube

4. How big is a king vulture?

King vultures are some of the largest New World vultures. They're usually around 2 – 3 feet tall. Only condors are bigger.

5. How much does a king vulture weigh?

King vultures typically weigh around 6 – 10 pounds.

6. What is the king vultures wingspan?

The wingspan of the king vulture is a whopping 4 – 7 feet. This is twice the size of their bodies!

Facts about king vultures

7. How did the king vulture get its name?

There are two theories about the “king” part of the king vulture's name.

  1. The fanciful one is that it comes from ancient Mayan legends where vultures were royal messengers between humans and gods.
  2. The more practical explanation is that it comes from the king vulture's tendency to displace other vultures from feeding sites. It's a fearless animal, and it won't hesitate to snap at smaller birds until they back off from a kill.

8. Are king vultures friendly?

You wouldn't want to pet a king vulture. While certain individual birds have been tamed by zookeepers and wildlife handlers, the species as a whole isn't known for its friendliness.

They have sharp beaks, quick reflexes and absolutely no qualms about establishing their dominance.

9. Are king vultures aggressive?

King vultures aren't very aggressive when it comes to their own kind. In fact, they can be downright mellow. They mate for life, so there aren't any fights about access to females; they feed, drink and bathe together in communal areas, so there aren't conflicts over territory.

When other birds enter the picture, however, king vultures become the top dogs. They'll snap at any turkeys, vultures or raptors that try to pick through carrion before them. And between the size of their bodies and the sharpness of their beaks, not many birds are eager to challenge them.

There's only one animal that the king vulture will defer to and that's the condor. Since condors are even bigger than they are, they don't pick fights with them.

Watch on YouTube

10. How long do king vultures live?

There haven't been a lot of studies conducted on the longevity of king vultures. Specimens in captivity usually live between 30 – 40 years, but their lifespan in the wild is probably much lower.

11. Are king vultures good flyers?

King vultures are excellent flyers. They have large, powerful wings that provide deep and rhythmic propulsion.

Truthfully, however, they don't even need the strength of their wings. They're fully capable of soaring for hours without flapping. They know how to ride currents and navigate thermals with instinctive ease.

A funny thing about king vultures is that they tuck their heads down as they fly, so if you're looking at them from a great distance, they might appear to be headless birds gliding through the clouds.

King vulture in flight

12. What eats a king vulture? Predators and Threats

King vultures aren't bothered by a lot of predators. They might be killed by the occasional jaguar that surprises them at a carcass, but generally speaking, their only real threat is when other animals come after their eggs.

Snakes are a particular danger; they can slither into their nests and swallow their unhatched eggs whole.

13. Is the king vulture endangered?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has king vultures listed as “least concern” on their extinction scale, which is the safest rating that they can possibly have.

However, the IUCN also notes that their population is on the decline. There are less than 7,000 mature adults in the wild.

14. What do king vultures eat?

As scavengers, king vultures tend to eat anything that's been left behind by other animals. They'll pick through the carcasses of birds, monkeys, cougars, foxes, sloths, lizards and wild turkeys. They've also been known to take advantage of beached fish and animals that died of natural causes.

Occasionally, a king vulture will finish off a weak or injured animal, but this is rare. They prefer to let others do the hard work.

15. Do king vultures eat the entire animal?

No. King vultures only eat the skin and hard tissue, so they'll pick through a carcass to find these favored parts before flying away and leaving the rest to other scavengers.

16. How do king vultures find food?

King vultures have keen eyes that are able to spot carrion from hundreds of feet above the ground.

They might use scents to lead them to dead animals as well. Researchers used to think that king vultures weren't able to smell anything at all; they couldn't find buried food and often followed other, odor-sniffing birds to their prey, so everyone assumed that king vultures lacked the olfactory senses to lead them to fresh kills.

In the 1990s, however, a study put king vultures in a controlled environment where they weren't able to see their food and didn't have any other birds to follow to it. They still managed to locate it. This suggests that they can smell after all.

Watch on YouTube

17. Do king vultures have teeth?

They don't have teeth, but their beaks are so sharp that they're used in the same way.

King vultures have been classified as “rippers” rather than “gulpers” or “scrappers” when it comes to their eating habits. They often make the first cut on animal carcasses by tearing through it with their beaks, and this benefits other, weaker vultures that lack the strength to get inside the remains on their own. These other vultures will move in after the king vultures have had their fill.

King vultures also possess a rasp-like tongue that helps them to get all of the meat off the bone. In addition, they have strong stomach acids that break down the gristle of their prey.

All things considered, king vultures don't really need teeth.

18. What is the king vultures Latin name?

The king vulture's scientific name is sarcoramphus papa.

This comes from the Latin words for “flesh” (sarx) and “curved beak” (rhamphos). The word “papa” is derived from the Latin word for “bishop” in reference to the king vulture's black-and-white plumage.

Sarcoramphus papa facts

19. What other names does the king vulture have?

The king vulture has names in many different languages.

Most of them involve some combination of the words “king,” “vulture,” “condor” or just “bird of prey,” but a few are unique. For example, the Spanish refer to them as “white crows,” and the Chinese call them “crimson-ring birds.”

20. Are there any sub-species for the king vulture?

King vultures don't have any sub-species today, but they might have had a couple in the past.

21. What threats are faced by the king vulture?

The single biggest threat to king vultures is habitat loss. There are many reasons for this:

  • Humans are mining, logging, damming, trawling and cutting down trees for commercial purposes.
  • Wildfires are destroying large portions of the native forest.
  • Climate change is impacting environments until they're unlivable.

Habitat loss is particularly painful for king vultures since they're scavengers that rely on other animals for food. Not only are they losing their own homes to deforestation, but they're also starving when they can't find carrion. Depleted ecosystems translate to fewer animals living in a certain area.

22. Do king vultures mate for life?

Yes. Once they've taken a mate, king vultures stay in monogamous pairs for the rest of their lives.

23. At what age do king vulture lay eggs?

King vultures become independent when they're around 4 – 5 years old. They'll leave mom and dad and strike out on their own, and depending on their success in finding a mate, they'll lay an egg either that year or the following year.

24. How do king vultures find a mate?

There are elaborate courtship rituals for the king vulture species. They circle each other, advance and retreat, open and close their wings, tremble their bodies, and bow their heads to display their colorful necks.

Everything is accompanied by a variety of grunts, croaks, and whistles. They might even take to the skies together to go tandem flying.

25. How often do king vultures lay eggs?

There's no official mating season for king vultures, but they tend to breed the most during the dry seasons of their native countries. This is usually between May to August, but it can fluctuate quite a bit.

26. How many eggs does the king vulture lay? What do they look like?

King vultures lay one egg at a time. It's large and white, and both the male and female take turns incubating it. It takes 53 – 58 days to hatch.

Once the baby is born, it will develop quickly. It'll be wiggling around the nest by the second day, and by the third, it'll be able to preen and peck. It will stand on its toes by day 20. It will take its first flight around day 90.

27. Do baby king vultures scavenge for food?

No. It's a skill that they have to learn from their parents eventually, but when they're still young hatchlings in the nest, mom and dad bring the food to them.

Their parents typically eat the carrion themselves and regurgitate it straight into their awaiting beaks.

King vulture young

28. What is the king vultures call?

King vultures don't have voice boxes, so they're unable to sing or call like other birds. They do make noises from the throat, however.

They'll grunt to attract a mate, and they'll croak a warning if another animal ventures too close to their nest. They'll also communicate with their families using low-pitched sounds.

29. Are king vultures loud?

King vultures aren't particularly loud. They can be vocal when they want to be, but since they lack voice boxes, their volume is limited.

30. Do king vultures live in groups?

King vultures usually live in small family units that consist of a mated pair and their young. Sometimes, unattached adults will join them, but they don't let their groups get very large. The max is usually around 8 – 10 birds.

The exception to this rule is when they're feeding on carrion. King vultures can tolerate each other in large numbers when fresh meat is available. The largest king vulture group on record is 50 birds around a single carcass.

That said, everyone has to wait their turn to eat. No more than three king vultures can pick through remains at the same time; the others have to hang back until they're finished. This is how they maintain the peace when they're chowing down.

31. Do king vultures migrate?

No. King vultures aren't migratory birds, so they stay in the same territory all year long. They might relocate to another area if food is scarce, but that's the extent of their travel.

32. Where does the king vulture live?

King vultures are native to Central and South America. They inhabit more than 5.4 million square miles between southern Mexico and northern Argentina. They can be found in countries like Belize, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and El Salvador.

33. What is the habitat of the king vulture?

Like many birds, king vultures live in trees, but they can be picky about the surrounding environment of those trees.

They like wet, humid places such as swamps and tropical rainforests. They're occasionally found in grasslands and savannas, but this is probably due to habitat loss rather than any instinctive drive to live there.

34. How high can king vultures fly?

King vultures have been recorded in altitudes as high as 11,000 feet, but their usual range is closer to 5,000 feet. They can adapt to higher, colder environments when they need to, but they prefer to stay a bit closer to the ground.

In fact, their preference for high altitudes is part of the reason why it's so difficult to track and study them. A lot of the king vulture facts that you're reading now are the result of painstaking years of research!

Don't think that 5,000 feet are chump change, however. The Parima Mountains in northeast South America are 5,000 feet!

35. Where do king vultures nest?

King vultures don't make a true nest. They don't gather sticks and twigs like other birds.

Instead, they'll lay their eggs inside a tree trunk or tree hollow where it's safe from the elements and protected on all sides from predators. It isn't always enough to keep the snakes away, but it's how they live.

36. How do king vultures regulate their temperatures?

The biggest problem for king vultures is staying cool. Since they live in hot, humid environments, it's easy for their body temperatures to rise to the point of heat stroke.

To counter this, they engage in something called urohidrosis: pooping on their own legs to prevent overheating. It's kind of nasty, but it's fairly common in storks and vultures, as well as some other birds.

King vultures also need to stay warm. It's less of a concern than staying cool, but it can get pretty chilly in high altitudes in the winter, and king vultures don't have a huge amount of body mass. They typically combat the cold by sunbathing in direct light whenever it's available.

37. Where can I see the king vulture?

King vultures aren't rare or endangered, so you can find them in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries around the world.

The good news is that they're immediately distinguishable from other birds thanks to their colorful heads and necks. (#34 talks about where these big birds are found in the wild!)

38. Do king vultures have any significance in South American culture?

King vultures have been represented in South American art and literature since the days of the Mayans. In fact, the Mayan codices have several unmistakable depictions of king vultures. They share space with all kinds of symbols, pictures, paintings, and hieroglyphics.

King vultures have also graced many different versions of South American stamps. El Salvador used them in the '60s; Belize and Guatemala printed them in the '70s; Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Honduras hopped on the bandwagon in the '90s.

39. What purposes do king vultures serve?

They perform a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. King vultures play a vital role in clearing their environments of dead animals.

Not only do they act as living trash compactors, but since they rip open carcasses that other scavengers are too weak to handle, they also make it easier for everyone to sweep up.

It's more important than just making the land look nice. If dead animals were allowed to rot and decay in the hot sun, they could start spreading diseases that would ruin the soil and poison other creatures. Humans would be especially vulnerable if they tried to build a city somewhere that was teeming with germs.

King vultures might not win any beauty pageants, but they should be thanked for the part that they play in maintaining their native lands.

King vulture head

King of Carrion

What's your favorite fact about the king vulture? Did we miss one? And what do you think: are these birds beautiful or ugly? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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Meet the Author

Drew Haines

Drew Haines is an animal enthusiast, travel writer, and content marketer. She loves to share her passion through her writing. She is the founder and owner of EverywhereWild Media, EverywhereWild, and co-founder and owner of JustBirding. She also guest blogs on LatinRootsTravel and GringosAbroad. She lived in Ecuador for 6 years and explored the Galapagos Islands. Currently based in N.S., Canada.

1 comment… add one
  • Amanda Soberano Aug 6, 2019, 2:25 pm

    I think this bird is gorgeous! I’ve always loved it’s colors and it’s eyes are so pale and stunning. I have even used the King Vulture in one of my paintings, and I recently had a small encounter with one of these birds at the local zoo. So neat! Thanks for presenting so many facts. It was an interesting read!

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