Types of Vultures

Vultures are birds of prey and scavengers, which means that they feed only on meat and mainly on decomposing animals. They play a very important role in ecosystems, but since Charles Darwin they have had a bad reputation, as he described them as disgusting for eating like this. They have a series of impressive morphological adaptations to adapt to this particular way of eating and more surprising traits.

Characteristics of vultures

We will start by describing the main characteristics of vultures:

  • They are carrion birds with hooked beaks adapted to tear meat, with claws less sharp than their relatives the eagles, since their prey is already dead. Here you can learn more about What are scavengers .
  • Their most distinctive feature is that most species do not have feathers on their heads, necks, and legs , which makes it easier for them to clean themselves after getting dirty while feeding.
  • Around the naked neck they have a collar of feathers, which is called a ruff.
  • Eating decomposing meat could make any non-adapted animal sick, but their stomachs have a more acidic pH than usual, so they can digest the unusual food much faster and better.
  • If they ingest tissues or substances that are difficult to digest such as nails, hair or feathers, they regurgitate it in clusters called pellets.
  • During their flight they can take advantage of air currents to facilitate the process, which also frees them to focus their vision on finding carrion from above .
  • The discovery of carrion can last up to several days as it is directly related to the carnivorous habits of predators in which they can also spend several days searching for food.
  • When they find food, they tend to gorge themselves, which makes it difficult for them to take flight. In case of being in danger, they can vomit or regurgitate their food in order to take flight.
  • Although some vultures fly together, there are often food disputes and in places with carrion there can be a variety of species.
  • Birds that meet these characteristics are considered vultures, but there are actually two taxonomic groups that divide them and that are not related to each other. On the contrary, environmental conditions in different parts of the planet created species that converged into similar but taxonomically different organisms. Between both groups there are 21 species of vultures , and below we will tell you some details about the most representative ones.

As we have indicated before, there are two different taxonomic groups, so the main types of vultures are divided into:

  • The first type of vultures are the Accipítridos or vultures of the Old World . They inhabit the old continent and are characterized by having a powerful vision. For example, this group includes the Egyptian vulture and the bearded vulture.
  • The second type of vultures are the Cathartids or New World vultures , of the Cathartidae family. These American vultures have a fairly developed sense of smell and include auras, vultures, and condors.

Griffon vulture

Gyps fulvus inhabits the mountains of southwestern Europe and Asia , as well as northwestern Africa , thus being the Old World. Being in high mountains, it is easier for him to glide with his big wings. It is particular for its enormous size that it can reach between 2.30 and 2.65 meters in wingspan , as well as being between 0.95 and 1.10 meters in length. Its beak is bulbous and the feathers that emerge from its neck turn white with age.

Gypaetus barbatus has a common name that refers to its particular way of feeding: it carries dead animals to great heightsin flight, to drop them against rocks and break their bones . Going down, it consumes the exposed marrow.

His physique also lives up to his name, as his huge black wings and diamond-shaped tail fall like a cape over his white body, while his face is covered with a black mask, giving him a theatrical appearance. It is found in Africa, Europe, and Asia , belonging to the Accipitrid family of the Old World.

Red-headed vulture

Sarcogyps calvus is also known as the black king vulture . Its head bare of feathers is red, hence its name. It is usually found in areas close to human settlements, it has solitary habits and its diet depends practically on the corpses of livestock. This species is in danger of extinction , as its main food, which used to be hoofed animals, is disappearing. Improved waste management has also led them to run out of food. It lives in the Old World, in the region of India .

Egyptian vulture or Egyptian vulture

Neophron percnopterus has quite strange habits, even for a scavenger. This animal uses rocks to open ostrich eggs and consume the contents, which speaks of its enormous intelligence to support tools. They are also very careful with their nests, where they use small rods to roll wool. Although they mainly eat carrion, they can also hunt small animals if they cannot find any decomposing bodies.

Gloomy Egyptian vulture

Necrosyrtes monachus , Old World vulture, measures 1.6 meters in wingspan and has a brown color, square tail and no plumage on the neck. It is practically sedentary and feeds on carrion, insects and even human feces. It is a common species in Africa , but some regions, such as Senegal, have seen drastic declines of up to 85%, which is why it is classified as critically endangered .

Black vulture

Aegypius monachus are also known as Iberian vultures , although their location is much wider: they range from South Asia to the Mediterranean islands and the Iberian peninsula. It is important to emphasize that this black vulture is different from the American one, hence the importance of scientific names to refer to organisms. Its plumage is slightly brown and runs up its neck. Their favorite parts of carrion are the muscles and they complement this meal with hunting small animals that are taken to their nest, a place they frequent as they are quite sedentary. They are also monogamous and not very gregarious animals .

American black vulture

Also known as the buzzard, Coragyps atratus is completely black. Its face is rough and folds, which helps to visually differentiate it from the black vulture of the old continent. It measures approximately 60 centimeters and its behavior is quite gregarious . Often found in flocks soaring near mountains in search of decomposing bodies and even circling dying animals to take them to the next step and begin their feeding. It lives from the United States to Chile , making it a New World vulture. According to its location, a different subspecies corresponds, and it may be North American, South American and Andean.

Red headed american vulture

Cathartes aura is an American vulture from the New World, from Canada to Mexico , migrating to cold Canadian areas only during the breeding season. It is also known as the turkey vulture because of its naked red head. Its beak is hooked to manage to tear its prey to feed. Their behavior is very quiet and their songs are hisses. It is very early riser, it usually perches as soon as the sun rises in the treetops with its wings extended to take heat.

Andean condor

The Andean condor or Vultur gryphus is the largest land bird , since when it opens its wings it reaches up to 3 meters , which is why it was an important symbol for the Andean culture and the Southern Cone. In this area it is where he takes flight in search of carrion, especially along the Andes mountains .

You can use other scavengers as guides, following them to find food. Usually this association is made with the chicken-turkey aura. He is very patient and can go several weeks without eating, which he makes up for with a large stomach capacity of several kilos proportional to his large size. He is also peculiar for his monogamy, where he respects his partner and only changes when he dies.

Royal condor

Sarcoramphus papa has white fur and a bare head with a striking pattern of vivid red, yellow, orange and black colors, with an aesthetic appearance that is very contrasting with the other vultures. Its wingspan is up to 2 meters , a size that is useful for displacing other scavenging species. Despite this, they are very calm and do not like conflict.

They do not have a very good sense of smell and are highly dependent on other vultures for food. It is also known as the jungle condor, as it inhabits these ecosystems, from Mexico to Argentina , which is why it belongs to the cathartids. They are found in the emerging layer of the jungles, which is the highest area. Being difficult to reach by humans, there is much to know about this condor. It is classified as endangered , threatened mainly by pesticide poisoning.

Californian condor

Gymnogyps californianus lives from Arizona, United States , to Baja California, southern Mexico . It belongs to the cathartid family and belongs to the vultures of the New World. It is the largest bird in North America , with a wingspan of 10 feet , and has been a significant animal to the Navajo natives. They have been around for 11,000 years. They suffered intense hunting campaigns, thus becoming extinct in their wild habitat in 1987, but thanks to conservation efforts in North American zoos they have been able to reproduce and many specimens have been reinserted into their native habitat.

Curiosities of the vultures

To finish, we comment on some of the most striking curiosities about vultures:

  • The vultures are responsible for eliminating 70% of the African carrion, which would otherwise accumulate.
  • How much does a vulture weigh? It can range from 1.5 kg to 12 kg , depending on the species.
  • The name Carthartidae comes from the Latin kathartes which means those who purify, while Accipitridae comes from the Latin accipiter, which means bird of prey.
  • Vultures do an important service for the elimination of potentially dangerous pathogenic residues for humans and other species.
  • Many species of vultures, such as the African white-backed vulture ( Gyps africanus ), are at risk of disappearing through hunting, persecution and land use change, which represents a great risk of ecosystem balance.

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