Range:

Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America

Habitat:

Almost all types, as long as there is food available.

What makes a vulture?

They may not be the prettiest birds of prey, but the world would be a smellier place without vultures!

All vultures have a wide wingspan, which allows them to soar for long periods of time without flapping so much as a feather while looking for carrion to eat. They all have a sharp, hooked beak for ripping apart meat. Vultures are large compared to other birds. Their bald head and neck serve a useful purpose, allowing vultures to steer clear of infection and tangled feathers when eating decaying meat. A strong immune system allows vultures to eat rotting and possibly infected meat without getting sick.

New World versus Old World

These unusual birds are divided into two groups: New World vultures, which are from North, Central, and South America; and Old World vultures, which live in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

New World vultures have a distinctive bald head, an adaptation that helps reduce the risks of disease, because bacteria could become lodged in feathers, while the bald head and neck may be disinfected by the sun’s rays. New World vultures have nostrils that are long and horizontal, with a space between them. They do not have a voice box, so they cannot make any sound except hisses and grunts. New World vultures don’t build nests; instead, they lay their eggs in holes on high rocky surfaces or in tree cavities.

Some examples of New World vultures are turkey vultures, black vultures, king vultures, California condors, and Andean condors.

Old World vultures look like their eagle and hawk relatives. They have large, grasping talons, a voice box to vocalize with, and build nests made of sticks on rocky platforms or in trees. Old World vultures have also been around longer than the New World vultures. They have stronger feet than the New World vultures, which have feet that are not designed for grasping, and large, broad wings that allow them to stay aloft for most of the day, and a large, powerful beak with a hooked tip.

Some other examples of Old World vultures are Himalayan, Egyptian, hooded, Indian black, and palm-nut vultures, and Egyptian or Eurasian griffons.

How does a vulture cool off on a hot day? By drenching its legs with its droppings, a nifty heat regulation technique known as urohydrosis.
When a vulture is upset, its head turns red, and it looks like it is blushing.
Ruppell’s griffons get on the wing about two hours after sunrise and spend the entire day aloft.
Old World vultures may play dead when threatened, hunching down or hiding in a nest.
A band of 100 African white-backed vultures can strip a 110-pound (50 kilograms) carcass in 3 minutes.
Turkey vultures are highly migratory; many venture south to winter in South America.
Bearded vultures can knock wild and domestic goats off steep mountainsides to their deaths. They can lift and carry live prey, such as a 2-foot-long (60 centimeters) monitor lizard.
Bearded vultures were once considered holy: killing one or destroying its nest was considered a great sin.
Bearded vultures have stomach acid that is more caustic than battery acid to help them digest bones.
The large crop of a Rueppell’s vulture can hold about 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) of food, which may be as much as 20 percent of the bird’s weight.
The Rueppell’s vulture is the highest-flying bird. Reportedly, one was hit by a jet flying over the Ivory Coast at an altitude of 35,433 feet (10,800 meters).

Vultures of all types have been in San Diego Zoo Global’s collection since our earliest days, starting with turkey and king vultures in the early 1920s and black vultures in 1926. Two Egyptian vultures arrive at the Zoo in 1947.

In the 1930s, a Southern California resident found a vulture nest and took its two chicks, which he believed to be California condors. The youngsters were confiscated by authorities and brought to our Zoo when they were a bit older, where it was determined that they were turkey vultures. We released them back into the wild when we felt they were old enough to venture out on their own. However, a few days later, we noticed that there were a lot of vultures hanging out in our trees, and one of them kept trying to get in our vulture aviary—it was one of the youngsters, and it had alerted its friends that there was free food to be had!

In 1982, as we geared up to help save the highly endangered California condor, we honed our husbandry techniques on Andean condors as well as king, turkey, and black vultures in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s newly built “Condorminium” complex. One local wild turkey vulture squeezed under and around fencing and gates to be inside with the Andean condors! He was soon placed in a room of his own that featured a specially prepared diet brought to him, the company of kin, and the opportunity, whenever he wanted, to exercise his wings.

Today, both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park have Andean and California condors. In addition, the Safari Park is home to several Old World vulture species: Rueppell’s and lappet-faced vultures can be seen from the Africa Tram tour; hooded and Egyptian vultures are on exhibit in Africa Woods. The Park has been successful in breeding many vulture species over the years: king, Rueppell’s, and hooded vultures, and Andean and California condors. Our Condor Cam gives viewers a look at a Calfornia condor family at the Park.

Despite the vulture’s seemingly messy eating habits, it is a clean bird and bathes frequently. You may see our vultures bathing in their exhibit pool. Some of them even like getting doused with the hose by their keepers!

You may also see wild turkey vultures that hang around the Safari Park. They have excellent eyesight and can easily spot a keeper walking to an exhibit with a “free lunch.”

Things we humans put in our environment seem to be causing rapid declines in vulture populations. For example, in India and other parts of South Asia in the 1990s, huge numbers of vultures died. In 2000, San Diego Zoo Global joined the investigation to determine what was killing the birds. The outcome surprised everyone: an anti-inflammatory drug used by veterinarians and ranchers to help livestock. The vultures were eating livestock that had been treated by the drug, became sick, and died. Efforts were made to restrict the use of the drug in livestock.

Poachers in Africa and Asia are known to poison the carcasses of elephants they have killed, after they take the tusks, to kill any vultures that come to clean up the mess, believing the gathering birds might reveal the scene of the crime. Ranchers frustrated by large cat attacks on their livestock poison cattle carcasses to kill the carnivores, but the poison also kills the vultures that come to pick the carcass clean. And vultures die from eating meat killed by hunters using lead bullets; the birds slowly die from lead poisoning. A study done in southern Africa revealed that about 25 percent of the white-backed vultures Gyps africanus tested had high levels of lead in their blood.

The California condor Gymnogyps californianus, white-rumped vulture Gyps bengalensis, Indian vulture Gyps indicus, slender-billed vulture Gyps tenuirostris, and red-headed vulture Sarcogyps calvus are at critical risk.

To conserve these graceful scavengers, breeding programs, education, and awareness programs have been started for endangered vultures by organizations like The Peregrine Fund and Vulture Rescue. San Diego Zoo Global is significantly involved in the California Condor Recovery Program.

There are people fighting for these birds, and so can you! Place trash in the right bin, don’t use dangerous chemicals, dispose of harmful substances responsibly, and recycle. If you are a hunter, please use non-lead bullets. These are all ways that you can help wildlife, including those misunderstood vultures.

You can also help us bring vulture species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.