Sarcoramphus papaking vulture

Geographic Range

King vultures are found in the southern part of Mexico and throughout Central and South America to northern Argentina. (del Hoyo, et al., 1994)


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. (De Roy, 1998; del Hoyo, et al., 1994)

  • Range elevation
    1200 (high) m
    3937.01 (high) ft

Physical Description

The most noticeable difference between king vultures and other vultures is that they are largely covered with white plumage. Their wings are mostly white with black tips. The ruff, flight and tail feathers are gray to black; the black areas have an almost opalescent sheen. Their wingspan is between 180 to 198 cm (71 to 78 inches), and from head to tail they are about 71 to 81 cm (28 to 32 inches). An adult can weigh from 3 kg (6.6lbs) up to more than 4.5 kg (9.9lbs). Their bare head, neck, beak and muttle are red, orange and yellow, with very striking eyes that are straw, white or silver in color. Their beaks have a hooked tip and cutting edges, which are very strong. Their feet are gray. These birds are very striking, especially since most other vultures are all black. There are no differences between the males and females of this species. When they are young, king vultures are covered with white downy feathers. (Chaffee Zoo, Date Unknown; De Roy, 1998; del Hoyo, et al., 1994; Stiles and Skutch, 1989)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    3000 to 4500 g
    105.73 to 158.59 oz
  • Range length
    71 to 81 cm
    27.95 to 31.89 in
  • Range wingspan
    180 to 198 cm
    70.87 to 77.95 in


The King Vulture lays one egg, which is creamy white and takes 53-58 days to hatch. At times both parents incubate the egg while at other times it is just the female. Not much is known about why this behavior takes place. They do wander away from the nest as they get older, which might be a defense from being eaten. Apparently they begin to acquire their adult plumage around 18 months which grow slowly and takes about four years to fully grow in. The young remain with their parents for that period of time.

(; Stiles, F. Gary and Alexander, F. Skutch,1989; Del Hoyo, Elliot, Sargutal, et al., 1994)


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. (Sibley, 2001)

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. (Chaffee Zoo, Date Unknown; Honolulu Zoo, 2004)

  • Breeding season
    Mainly in the dry season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    57 days

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 (family Cathartidae) 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. (De Roy, 1998; del Hoyo, et al., 1994; Honolulu Zoo, 2004; Sibley, 2001; Stiles and Skutch, 1989)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female


There is not very much information about king vultures in the wild, including their lifespan. However, there is at least one pair of birds in Paris that have been studied in captivity for over 30 years. (De Roy, 1998)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    40 years


King vultures stay in family units and do not congregate in large groups. They remain out of sight for the most part, sitting high in the canopy or flying and soaring high in the air looking for food. They are not migratory and are seen in the same areas all year long.

Unlike some other vultures, king vultures do not have a well-developed sense of smell. They rely on other vultures to find prey and will then descend to take part in feeding. King vultures are very rarely aggressive, and will usually back down before fighting. Because of their large wings and bodies they depend totally on air currents for flight, they do not flap their wings unless absolutely necessary. (Chaffee Zoo, Date Unknown; De Roy, 1998; del Hoyo, et al., 1994)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

King vultures, as well as all vultures in the family Cathartidae, lack a voice box (a syrinx and the muscles that make it work). They are not completely silent though, they do make very low croaking sounds. They also make noises during breeding, and give warning sounds if anything approaches their nests. (del Hoyo, et al., 1994; Stiles and Skutch, 1989)

Food 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. (del Hoyo, et al., 1994; Stiles and Skutch, 1989)


King vultures and other members of the family Cathartidae do not seem to have many anti-predation adaptations. Their nests are vulnerable to animals that prey opportunistically on young and eggs (such as snakes (suborder Serpentes)). Adults are vulnerable while eating. If a large cat (family Felidae) comes to a carcass and the vulture is full of food then it may have a hard time getting off of the ground and away from danger. They are also vulnerable to attack if they are injured or ill.

There is some controversy, but it is believed that the nest sites of these birds are very smelly for the purpose of scaring off potential predators. (De Roy, 1998)

  • Known Predators
    • snakes (Serpentes)
    • large cats (Felidae)

Ecosystem Roles

King vultures, as well as other members of the family Cathartidae, play an important role in their ecosystem. These birds are usually the first to find dead animals and immediately begin to dispose of the rotting remains. As are all scavengers, these birds are important in keeping their environment free of dead, decomposing animals; this may also help reduce possible sources of disease. (del Hoyo, et al., 1994)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

As a result of their unique beauty and size, king vultures are an attraction at zoos. (De Roy, 1998)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of king vultures on humans.

Conservation Status

King vultures are rarely seen in large numbers and several have been sited in a areas where they were previously thought not to exist. It is apparent, however, that human encroachment and habitat loss have had an adverse affect on king vultures. They are listed as Appendix III by CITES. (del Hoyo, et al., 1994)

Other Comments

Even though king vultures and other New World vultures (family Cathartidae) look like Old World vultures (family Accipitridae), it is believed that New World vultures are actually descendents of storks. They have skeletal, skull and muscle structure similar to storks, as well as some similar behavioral traits. However, they are almost the same size, have the same beak strength and have the same bare head and neck as Old World vultures. The similarity between Old World and New World vultures is a prime example of convergent evolution. (del Hoyo, et al., 1994)


Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Dawne Ormiston (author), Fresno City College, Carl Johansson (editor), Fresno City College.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals


an animal that mainly eats meat


flesh of dead animals.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an animal that mainly eats dead animals

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


Chaffee Zoo, Date Unknown. "King Vulture" (On-line). Accessed 03/01/04 at

De Roy, T. 1998. King of the Jungle. International Wildlife, 28: 52-57.

Honolulu Zoo, 2004. "King Vulture" (On-line). Accessed 03/01/04 at

Sibley, D. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Stiles, F., A. Skutch. 1989. A guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Publishing Associates.

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliot, J. Sargutal, et. al. 1994. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 2. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.