The strikingly colored king vulture is the largest New World vulture after the two species of condor. It lives in the tropical forests of Central and South America, from the south of Mexico to the north of Argentina.
Scientific & Common Names
Species: S. papa
Common Names: King Vulture, Painted Vulture (potential extinct Florida population)
The king vulture’s striking white and black feathered body is contrasted by its brightly colored, bare head, which includes vibrant hues of orange, yellow, red, blue and purple. The king vulture’s wingspan can reach up to seven feet, and it can weigh as much as ten pounds.
The brightly colored fleshy growth on its head is known as a caruncle.
Not much is known about the breeding behavior of king vultures in the wild, but captive birds have given more insight into the vulture’s reproductive habits. King vultures mate for life and typically lay a single egg at a time. The egg is incubated by both parents for around 50-60 days until it hatches. The chicks will be cared for by both parents, and take their first flight at three months old.
King vultures are scavengers. They soar across the sky, rarely flapping their wings, searching for carrion to eat. It hunts using its eyes, but may also use its sense of smell to find food. It has also been observed following other vultures which have a better sense of smell.
King vultures have a long history in the native cultures of the Mayas and Aztecs, appearing as a god to the Mayans and Cozcacuauhtli, the Aztec representation of the 13th day of the month.
Naturalist William Bartram described a bird very similar to the king vulture during his travels to Florida in the 1770s. He called this bird a “painted vulture”. No other ornithologists since have described seeing such a bird in Florida, which calls Bartram’s discovery into question, although he claimed they were common. However, a drawing made by the naturalist and artist Eleazar Albin in 1734 depicts a bird that matches Bartram’s description.
The king vulture is a species of Least Concern, with a population that is believed to number between 10,000 and 100,000 wild individuals. Habitat destruction and illegal hunting are threats to the bird, although at this time it is not significant enough to merit a more serious rating of concern.