There are multiple vulture species in the Americas, but there’s only one king.
Not including the California or Andean condor, the king vulture is the largest species of New World vulture, with a wingspan extending past five feet.
What Does It Look Like?
The standout feature of the king vulture is its colorful head, including a large orange wattle over the top of a curved orange bill.
It sports a red eye ring and the back of its head is painted in hues of yellow, red, and orange.
Despite some vultures’ reputations as unflattering scavengers, king vultures are pretty birds in flight, with white undersides and mostly white wings that they hardly flap while coasting through the air in search of a meal.
Range and Migration
The bulk of the king vulture’s range is in South America, where it occupies airspace from northern Argentina and Uruguay up to southern Central America. They do not migrate.
While vultures prefer forested habitats, they are sometimes known to move into surrounding savannas in search of food.
They are most common in the tall treetops of the forests and in the air, soaring in search of carrion (the meat of animal carcasses).
They often fly higher than other vulture species, according to Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Institute, and they may be seen flying above other vulture species like turkey or black vultures for one very important reason: food location.
What Does It Eat?
King vultures are primarily carrion eaters, which means they spend a lot of time in the sky patrolling for a kill site, though they usually require a little bit of assistance to find their food.
How king vultures locate food, including whether or not they can smell, has been the source of some debate. Ultimately, the overriding opinion is that they cannot smell, instead following vultures that can smell, such as turkey vultures, to a carcass.
When they arrive at a carcass, smaller birds like other vultures will often disperse and make way for the king, though king vultures are out-competed by larger Andean condors at a kill site.
A 1987 study in Peru found that Andean condors won 100 percent of aggressive interactions at a carcass with king vultures, which were never initiated by king vultures.
How Big Is It?
King vultures are the largest non-condor New World vultures, standing about 2.5 feet tall and weighing about eight pounds, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
They have a wingspan of about 6.5 feet, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
What Does It Sound Like?
Vultures including the king vulture do not have voice boxes, so they do not make any calls or songs, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World.
Animal Diversity Web from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology reports that they’re not completely silent, however, and sometimes produce a low croak or breeding noises.
How Long Does It Live?
In captivity, king vultures typically live between 30 and 40 years, but Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas has a king vulture that surpassed 70 years old in 2022.
Although BirdLife International lists its population as being on a decline, the King Vulture is recognized as a species of “least concern,” according to the IUCN.
BirdLife estimates a population of between 670 and 6,700, though that number varies significantly across the bird world, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to 50,000, according to San Diego Zoo Senior Keeper Marco Wendt.
Like many bird species that inhabit the world’s forests, the king vulture’s future is threatened by habitat loss.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
Does the King Vulture Have Any Predators?
The king vulture’s only potential natural predators are large cats and snakes.
Since vultures don’t spend much time on the ground, they’re most likely to become prey when feeding on a carcass.
What Is the Biggest Vulture in the World?
The answer to this question depends a little bit on which measurement you’re going by.
The largest vulture is often considered to be the cinereous vulture, a Eurasian species that measures nearly four feet long and features a wingspan exceeding 10 feet.
However, Andean and California condors can both reach more than four feet in length with wingspans up to 10 feet, and like the cinereous vulture, Andean condors can exceed 30 pounds.