King Vulture

Sarcoramphus papa

Animal Ambassadors



A distinctive bird, the king vulture is easily recognized. The wings are short and quite broad and from the neck down the birds are white with a black band running along the rear edge of the wings. A small collar of feathers at the base of the neck is blackish-gray while the bare skin on the head and neck is orange, green, yellow and purplish blue. The crown is covered with small bristle-like feathers and a fleshy wattle directly above the nostrils. King vultures eat carrion. They have a thick, strong beak which is well adapted for tearing, and long, thick claws for holding the meat. They have keen eyesight and a sense of smell that they use to find their food. Though it appears to dominate over a feeding site, this vulture actually relies on other stronger-beaked carrion-eaters to initially rip open the hide of a carcass.

There are two theories on how the king vulture earned the “king” part of its common name. The first is that the name is a reference to its habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait. An alternative theory reports that the name is derived from Mayan legends, in which the bird was a king who served as a messenger between humans and the gods. The king vulture’s closest relative is the Andean condor. Excluding the two species of condors, the king vulture is the largest of the New World vultures. Unlike some New World vultures, the king vulture lacks eyelashes. While juveniles look similar to the adult by the third year, they do not completely molt into adult plumage until they are around five or six years of age. On the head of a king vulture, you will notice a highly irregular golden crest attached above the bill. This caruncle does not fully form until the bird’s fourth year.

parts of Central & South America
Unknown / up to 30 years
tropical lowland forests, savannas, grasslands and swamps
Length / Wingspan:
4-7 ft
6-10 lbs