This King Vulture is one of the ugliest and scariest creatures that I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a photo of. It really freaked me out – but what an awesome creature!
- Photographed at the South Lakes Safari Zoo.
The king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) is a large bird found in Central and South America. It is a member of the New World vulture family Cathartidae. This vulture lives predominantly in tropical lowland forests stretching from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. It is the only surviving member of the genus Sarcoramphus, although fossil members are known.
Large and predominantly white, the king vulture has gray to black ruff, flight, and tail feathers. The head and neck are bald, with the skin color varying, including yellow, orange, blue, purple, and red. The king vulture has a very noticeable orange fleshy caruncle on its beak. This vulture is a scavenger and it often makes the initial cut into a fresh carcass. It also displaces smaller New World vulture species from a carcass. King vultures have been known to live for up to 30 years in captivity.
King vultures were popular figures in the Mayan codices as well as in local folklore and medicine. Although currently listed as least concern by the IUCN, they are decreasing in number, due primarily to habitat loss.
The king vulture eats anything from cattle carcasses to beached fish and dead lizards. Principally a carrion eater, there are isolated reports of it killing and eating injured animals, newborn calves and small lizards.
The king vulture primarily eats carrion found in the forest, though it is known to venture onto nearby savannas in search of food. Once it has found a carcass, the king vulture displaces the other vultures because of its large size and strong bill. However, when it is at the same kill as the larger Andean condor, the king vulture always defers to it.
Using its bill to tear, it makes the initial cut in a fresh carcass. This allows the smaller, weaker-beaked vultures, which can not open the hide of a carcass, access to the carcass after the king vulture has fed. The vulture’s tongue is rasp-like, which allows it to pull flesh off of the carcass’s bones. Generally, it only eats the skin and harder parts of the tissue of its meal.