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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Species Fact Profile: King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)

King Vulture
Sarcoramphus papa (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Southern Mexico - Northern Argentina
Habitat: Tropical Lowland Forest, Savannah, Swamp
Diet: Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary, Small Groups
Reproduction: Breed during the dry season, mate for life, 1 egg laid in a hollow tree and incubated by both parents for 52-58 days, chick takes first flight at 3 months old, sexually mature at 4-5 years
Lifespan: 30 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern; CITES Appendix III

  • Body length 67-81 centimeters, wingspan 1.2-2 meters, weight 2.7-4.5 kilograms; the king vulture is the largest New World vulture, apart from the two condor species
  • Predominately white feathering with dark gray or black coverts, flight feathers, tail, and neck ruff; the skin on the naked head.  During the fourth year, a fleshy caruncle (growth) appears on the beak
  • Depend on air currents for most of their flying ability, but can soar for hours without flapping; sometimes seen flying in tandem for courtship behaviors
  • Lack a voice box, but can still make croaking and wheezing sounds (probably for courtship)
  • Unknown whether or not they possess a sense of smell - it is believed that they do not, instead following other vultures to food
  • Will displace smaller vultures at a carcass (and will use its more powerful beak to open the tough hides that smaller species cannot); is displaced in turn by the larger Andean condor
  • Prominently featured in the Mayan codices and calendars (easily recognized by its caruncle), believed to have had religious and medical significance, believed to have been a messenger of the gods
  • Explorer William Bartram described "painted vultures" in Florida in the 1770's; some scientists consider this to be a king vulture (a possible northern extension of the species range), while others believe it was really a crested caracara

Zookeeper's Journal: I've had the dubious honor of losing blood to four of the seven species of New World vulture; after the Andean condor bite (detailed here), it was the king vulture that hurt the most.  In my more ambitious days, I was trying to train a young female king vulture for use in education programs.  I'd already worked with lots of hawks, falcons, and owls, but she was my first vulture - how much different could it be, I thought?  It turns out, a lot, especially from the safety perspective.  Hawks and eagles and falcons kill their prey with their talons, which tend to be very powerful.  As a result, their feet go on top of a very sturdy leather glove when working them.  Vultures, on the other hand, don't kill prey, so they don't need sharp talons.  They do, however, need to open up the carcasses of animals much larger than them, so their beaks tend to be very sharp and very powerful and very unpleasant to have applied to your calf, as I discovered.  

I never was able to make a program animal out of that bird...

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