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What is a King Vulture?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The king vulture is a carrion eating bird located primarily in parts of Central and South America. They are approximately 25 to 31 inches (70 to 80 cm) long, with a wingspan of 5 feet (1.5 m), and they weigh about 8 pounds (3.5 kgs). The head, which is bare, has orange, purple, blue and green markings. Most of the feathers are white with large black bands on the wings. When they are first born, the young vultures are solid black, and they don’t take on their adult colors for about six years.

King vultures are known to prefer tropical habitats, particularly rain forest areas. They are often found in places like Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. Most scientists believe they are threatened because of destruction to their habitat, but despite declines in their population, they aren’t officially an endangered species. Some activities have been put in motion that are designed to increase the population, including a program to breed them in captivity. In the country of Belize, the king vulture is protected by law.

Primarily, the king vulture feeds on carrion. They have a strong sense of smell and, in some cases, it allows them to reach carcasses early before other scavengers. When searching for food, they will patrol a wide area, sometimes flying for hours at a time. They are especially noted for their ability to fly for long distances without flapping their wings, which they accomplish by using air currents.

King vultures have a strong beak, and it helps them to take apart carrion quickly. The ability to devour food fast is generally considered important for scavengers, because it allows them to eat as much as possible before the competition gets too thick. Other carrion eaters, such as hyenas, for example, have similar advantages. In addition to carrion, scientists believe that the king vulture may occasionally hunt live animals, but the extent of this activity is currently unknown.

Some of the breeding activities of the king vulture are still somewhat mysterious to scientists. They tend to produce one to three eggs, with one egg being more common than three. Instead of building a nest, they usually take advantage of hollows in trees, or stumps. The male and female both help incubate, and the process can take between 55 and 60 days. King vulture chicks are completely featherless when they are born and gradually develop white down during their first few weeks of life. The adult birds are known to be aggressive in the defense of their young.

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