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What is a Vulture?

Niki Acker
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A vulture is a scavenging bird of prey. There are about 20 different species of vulture, divided into the Old World and New World varieties. Old World vultures belong to the family Accipitridae, while New World vultures belong to the Cathartidae. These two groups are not closely related, and their similarities are due to convergent evolution rather than to a genetic relationship.

Many types of vulture have a bald head and neck, which helps the bird stay clean, especially when plunging its head deep into a carcass. Old World vultures typically find their prey by sight, while New World vultures usually rely on their sense of smell. The vulture usually eats dead carcasses, but it may also feed on sick or injured animals. Because its food source is not consistent, the vulture eats as much as it can when food is available, storing it in a portion of the gastrointestinal tract called the crop and digesting it slowly while resting. Food regurgitated from the crop is fed to vulture young.

The vulture is endangered in India and Pakistan due to poisoning from a drug given to farm animals. In the last decade, the vulture population in these countries was diminished by 95%. Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), is given to sick farm animals in order to keep them working despite their pain. When they die, however, the drug is present in their system, and vultures that feed on the carcass are exposed to it. Though vultures can ingest bacteria that cause botulism, cholera, and anthrax with no ill effects, diclofenac is fatal to the birds.

Though vultures are considered unsavory in Western culture, they serve an important function, and their loss is a cause for concern. Without vultures, decaying animals threaten humans and pets with infection. Other scavengers, like rats and feral dogs, spread disease among the living. The declining vulture population also has negative repercussions for traditional cultures in India that expose their dead rather than burying them. Consequently, the use of diclofenac has been banned in India. However, despite the ban and the existence of an alternative drug, meloxicam, some farmers continue to use diclofenac.

The vulture is often used as a symbol of opportunistic exploitation of the dead or of tragedy in Western culture, and people who are thought to profit from death in any way are sometimes referred to as vultures. In Ancient Egypt, however, the vulture was a symbol of motherhood and of lasting romantic love, as the Nubian Vulture of Africa closely bonds with both mates and offspring.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a All Things Nature editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By chrisinbama — On Nov 18, 2010

I have a few more facts to add about vultures.

A group of vultures that are circling in the air is called a kettle, whereas a group of vultures walking around is called a venue. The turkey vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Act.

By dill1971 — On Nov 18, 2010

When we think of vultures, most of think of those hideous creatures we see eating the unfortunate road kill. I thought I would provide a little information about these not so pretty birds.

Vultures are usually resistant to most illnesses. They can withstand diseases that would likely kill other creatures or humans. They usually have one mate per year. The average lifespan of a vulture is 15 to 20 years. Some species live up to 50 years old.

Vultures do not have sweat glands so they cool themselves off by urinating. The turkey vulture makes a hissing sound when it feels threatened. Another defense mechanism for the turkey vulture is to vomit. Many predators can’t stand the foul odor and substance so they leave.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a All Things Nature editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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