King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)

King Vulture

[order] FALCONIFORMES | [family] Cathartidae | [latin] Sarcoramphus papa | [authority] Linnaeus, 1758 | [UK] King Vulture | [FR] Sarcoramphe roi | [DE] Konigsgeier | [ES] Zopilote Rey | [NL] Koningsgier


Monotypic species


Members of the Sarcorhamphus genus are medium-sized vultures with very broad wings and short broad tail. The bill is heavy; the legs and toes robust. The head and neck are mostly bare, corrugated and wattled. The exposed skin is garishly brilliant, in an intricate pattern. Plumage pattern are more varied than in any other species of the family. One living species; tropics of New World (Sarcorhamphus papa)

Physical charateristics

The king vulture is the third largest New World vulture (after the Andean and California Condors) and is often considered the most attractive. Its body plumage is primarily cream colored, set off by black flight feathers and tail. The bare skin of the head and neck is a complex pattern of yellow, orange, scarlet, black, and brown, enhanced by a bold, staring white eye circled in red. The legs and feet are greyish white. Juvenile birds are dark grey, nearly black, and gradually acquire elements of adult color over a period of five years. The sexes are similar.
Though often reported to have a highly developed sense of smell, recent research has disproved this, and it has now been shown that King Vultures often follow Turkey and Yellow-headed Vultures (which do have an acute sense of smell) to find carrion in forest. Usually a pair or family group (three) of King Vultures will be seen at a carcass together with a larger number of smaller vultures, over which the Kings are dominant and can claim the larger share of food.

wingspan min.: 190 cm wingspan max.: 198 cm
size min.: 71 cm size max.: 81 cm
incubation min.: 53 days incubation max.: 58 days
fledging min.: 85 days fledging max.: 58 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 1  


Latin America : Mexico to North Argentina


King vultures generally live in undisturbed forest in the lowland tropics. They have been found in savannas and grasslands also, but usually only when there are forests nearby. They can be found at elevations up to 1200 m. Little is known about king vultures in the wild, but it is believed that they live in the emergent layer of the forest, which is the top most part of the trees above the canopy. Their hard to reach preferred habitat could be why we do not know much about them


The courting ritual of Sarcoramphus papa has only been observed in captivity; it is quite an elaborate show. While mating they are known to be very loud, making unique wheezing and snorting sounds. Like most other members of their family, king vultures are most likely monogamous.

King vultures are solitary birds and do not nest in big colonies. They usually breed during the dry season. King vultures do not build nests, rather they lay their eggs in hollows of rotting logs or stumps or crevices in trees. They usually lay only one egg which is incubated by both parents. Juveniles begin to show adult plumage after 18 months. Both male and female king vultures participate in incubation. Young are altricial. Both parents care for the young at times, while at other times, it is just the mother.

Most birds of prey carry their food to their young in their claws, but New World Vultures have a large crop that enables them to carry quite a bit of food in the gut. They then regurgitate the food to feed their young. Young chicks are fed directly from the parent’s beak, but as they get older, the parents regurgitate the food onto the ground for the young to eat.

Feeding habits

King vultures are scavengers. Their only source of food is dead animals. King vultures are not known to kill any animals, not even ones that are obviously sick or ready to die. Unlike other New World vultures (family Cathartidae), king vultures arguably have no sense of smell. They will fly high in the sky watching and waiting for other smaller vultures to get excited about a find, they then swoop down out of the sky to the carrion. They usually end up stealing the carcass from the vulture that found it in the first place. They have more powerful beaks than other vultures, and are able to break through the tough hides of the carrion. It is often necessary for king vultures to make the initial tear through the hide so that other vultures, with less powerful beaks, can feed. Each New World vulture species has a unique part of a carcass that they specialize in eating. King vultures eat the skin and harder parts of tissue from the dead animals.

Video King Vulture


copyright: youtube


This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size may be small, but it is not believed to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
King vultures are found in the southern part of Mexico and throughout Central and South America to northern Argentina.
King Vulture status Least Concern


Sedentary in all of its range.

Distribution map

King Vulture distribution range map

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *