Welcome to this exploration of the diverse types of vultures, the often misunderstood heroes of nature. From the heights of rugged mountains to the dense tropical rainforests, we journey into the world of these avians. Read on to learn more.
Vulture Taxonomic Classification
Vultures, part of the Accipitridae and Cathartidae Families, comprise 23 species collectively. Often known as buzzards or scavengers, these birds play a key role in our ecosystems.
These birds have two main classifications: Old World vultures and New World vultures, encompassing various species. Residing in Asia, Africa, and Europe, Old World vultures include 16 species. The remaining seven species, known as New World vultures, inhabit the Americas.
These vultures form nature's clean-up crew. Their primary role is the consumption of the deceased, which prevents the spread of diseases and benefits the overall health of their ecosystems.
All 23 Types of Vulture Species
Old World Vultures
Unlike their New World counterparts, they rely on their sharp eyesight rather than their sense of smell to locate their next meal. Their heads are often bald or lightly feathered to prevent soiling while feeding on carcasses, and their strong, hooked beaks can tear apart tough flesh.
Old World Vultures have broad, mighty wings that allow them to ride thermal air currents effortlessly. Moreover, they have three forward toes and one back toe.
1. Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)
The Griffon Vulture is an Old World Vulture with a wingspan of up to 9.2 feet. Its plumage is primarily soft and pale, with darker heads and necks. They have a ruff of white feathers at the base of their necks.
These vultures live in mountainous regions, cliffs, plains, and semi-deserts of the Old World, including southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.
Carrion is their primary food source, and they have a unique stomach that allows them to digest rotting carcasses safely.
Griffon Vultures can cover up to 150 kilometers and are social birds, often feasting in large groups with a complex social hierarchy. The bigger and more dominant vultures eat first, but all vultures get a turn.
2. Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
The Bearded Vulture lives in rugged, high-altitude mountainous terrains. With a wingspan of 9.3 feet, it is one of the largest flying creatures on earth.
It features a bristly feathered ruff around its beak and a mixture of white, orange, and black feathers. The orange color of its feathers is due to dust-bathing or rubbing mud into its plumage.
Moreover, Bearded Vultures feed almost exclusively on bone marrow, which they access by carrying the bones into the sky and dropping them onto rocks below to shatter them.
3. Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)
The Cinereous Vulture has the largest wingspan among all vultures, at 10.2 feet. They have dark brown to black plumage with a faint purple or blue sheen.
Moreover, ‘cinereous' comes from the Latin 'cinereus,’ meaning 'ashen,' which reflects their ashy-grey head and neck. They live in various habitats, including mountains, steppes, and other expansive areas from Spain to Korea.
As scavengers, they feed on carrion and rely on their sharp vision to locate their meals. They prefer solitude or small groups while feeding and show aggression towards other vultures who try to approach their feast.
4. Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
The Egyptian vulture uses tools to access eggs for food. They drop stones onto ostrich eggs from great heights, using their sharp beaks to access the nutritious yolk.
This bird has predominantly white plumage with black flight feathers and a yellow blush on the face. They are comfortable in various landscapes, and their diet includes carrion, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and eggs.
5. White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis)
The White-headed Vulture lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. It has a striking white head and is known for being a solitary animal.
This vulture builds its nest in treetops and feeds on carrion, live prey, and insects. However, its feeding habits significantly threaten its survival due to poisoned carcasses intended for predators.
6. Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos)
The Lappet-faced Vulture is one of the largest vultures in Africa's semi-arid savannahs and deserts. It has a wingspan of 9.5 feet, featuring a naked pink head and saggy folds on its neck.
Moreover, the bird’s hooked beak allows it to tear through tough animal hide and tendons, feeding on parts of a carcass that other scavengers wouldn't dare touch.
The Lappet-faced Vulture prefers to feed alone, only joining larger groups during communal roosting or when a sizeable carcass is available.
It is devoted to its lifelong monogamous partner and shares the responsibility of incubating its single egg. However, this type of vulture has become endangered due to habitat loss, poisoning, and human activities.
7. Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)
The Hooded Vulture has a unique 'hood' of soft feathers crowning a bare, pinkish head and neck as its distinguishing feature. It has a 5.9-foot wingspan and inhabits sub-Saharan Africa.
It is an opportunistic feeder and will eat carrion as its primary food source. The bird makes various sounds, though it can’t make bird calls.
8. White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis)
The White-rumped Vulture has experienced the fastest recorded decline in history2.
In the 1990s, their population decreased by 99.9%, thanks to the veterinary drug diclofenac, which treated livestock but killed the vultures that fed on the carcasses. Fortunately, conservation efforts have successfully stabilized their numbers. They are still critically endangered to this day.
This medium-sized vulture has a striking white rump that contrasts with its dark plumage. It rides effortlessly on thermal currents while scanning the landscape for its next meal.
9. Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus)
The Red-headed Vulture is a solitary bird in South and Southeast Asia. Unlike other vultures, it feeds on the soft tissues of sick or wounded live animals instead of carrion, which helps prevent the spread of diseases from infected animals to healthy ones.
The Red-headed Vulture has a black body and wings, with a deep red to orange head and neck. It prefers open spaces and relies on its sharp sight to locate its next meal.
Moreover, it tends to breed in solitude, and the female usually lays a single egg in a nest built high in a tall tree.
10. Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus)
The Indian Vulture has suffered a rapid population decline3, with its numbers plummeting by 99% due to diclofenac. Conservation efforts are underway to save these birds and restore their populations. The latest reports categorized them as critically endangered.
Indian Vultures have long, slender bills, pale grey feathers, and enormous wingspans stretching up to 7 to 8 feet. Their breeding season typically occurs between October and March, during which females lay a single egg carefully incubated by both parents for around 45 to 50 days.
11. Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)
The Slender-billed Vulture is a large bird in the Indian subcontinent. It has a long, slender beak ideal for scavenging on meat.
With a wingspan of up to 8 feet and a body that measures around 3 feet, the bird is easy to spot due to its mix of dark and dirty white feathers, pale ruff, and dark grey head.
The Slender-billed Vulture feeds primarily on carcasses but also consumes fish and reptiles. It nests in forests, open country, and areas close to humans, especially where food is abundant.
Breeding season for this species takes place from October to March, and the female lays just one egg incubated in a large stick nest typically perched high in a tree.
12. Ruppell's Vulture (Gyps rueppelli)
The Ruppell's Vulture holds the record for the highest recorded flight by a bird, having been sucked into the engine of a commercial aircraft. They often fly at heights of 20,000ft. Thanks to their unique hemoglobin type, they have efficient oxygen absorption1 even in low-pressure environments of the upper atmosphere.
It feeds mainly on carrion and uses its impressive flying abilities to locate its meals. These types of vultures breed during the dry season, constructing nests on cliff ledges and laying a single egg that both parents incubate for approximately 55 days.
Despite their resourcefulness, Rueppell's Vultures are Critically Endangered, facing similar threats like other African vultures.
13. Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres)
The Cape Vulture is the largest vulture species in southern Africa. It has a wingspan of up to 8.5 feet and a creamy-buff body with dark feathers on the flight and tail.
Moreover, it is not an aggressive species and usually waits for other vultures to start feeding before it swoops down to the carcass.
Cape Vultures are social birds in large flocks around feeding sites and roosting areas. They prefer to inhabit mountainous regions and build their nests on cliff faces.
14. Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis)
The Himalayan Vulture lives in the Himalayas' mountainous regions. They have a wingspan of up to 9.8 feet, which allows them to soar through the skies effortlessly while searching for carrion, even those in advanced stages of decay.
Their uniquely acidic digestive system allows them to consume carrion and limit the spread of diseases.
15. Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis)
The Palm-nut Vulture lives in sub-Saharan Africa. It features a white coat, black crest, and bare face in shades of yellow to orange.
Unlike other vultures, this species primarily feeds on the fruit of the oil palm tree, which has a tough outer shell. The bird’s strong beak and powerful talons crack open these fruits. While it has a vegetarian diet, it occasionally consumes seafood, locusts, or fish.
During the breeding season, the Palm-nut Vulture builds its nest out of sticks on the top of palm trees. It also mates for life and shares the duties of incubation and chick-rearing.
16. White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus)
The White-backed vulture displays dark brown plumage, contrasted by a white back and ruff. This bird is identifiable by a pale grey beak and a collar of sparse, whitish feathers.
Found primarily in Africa, they inhabit grasslands and savannahs. Unfortunately, these scavengers are critically endangered. Conservation efforts are integral for the survival of this species due to threats like habitat loss and poisoning.
New World Vultures
The New World Vultures, commonly known as condors. have evolved to fit into specific ecological niches. Their unique trait is their extraordinary sense of smell, which sets them apart from their Old World cousins. This ability allows them to locate carrion hidden under thick foliage or scattered across their vast habitats.
They also lack a vocal organ, making them silent observers of their surroundings, with their presence only occasionally revealed by grunts and hisses.
17. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Turkey Vultures live in the Americas; they have six feet wingspans. They have a highly developed sense of smell, which they use to locate food from miles away.
Likewise, they prefer open landscapes such as forests, grasslands, deserts, and suburban areas with abundant food. Moreover, they feed on carrion, smaller animals, and insects.
Their bald heads are a practical adaptation for their feeding habits, keeping them clean as they dig into carrion. Finally, the Latin name for this species, "Cathartes aura," means "purifying breeze," reflecting their ecological role.
18. Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
The Black Vulture is a New World Vulture species with a wingspan of 4.9 feet, a bald black head, a sharp, hooked beak, a robust body, short legs, and broad wings.
Black vultures ride thermal currents with flat wings, and their characteristic wobbling flight distinguishes them from turkey vultures.
They are social creatures and often hang around large groups. These types of vultures have a clear feeding hierarchy, and adults always eat first during feeding time while the young ones patiently wait their turn.
19. King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)
The King Vulture can smell carrion from great distances. It lives in the tropical lowland forests of Mexico, Central America, and South America and has a predominantly white body with a colorful head and neck.
Moreover, King Vultures rarely go in flocks.It feeds on carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals, and relies on smaller vultures, such as the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, to break open the tough skins of larger animal carcasses.
20. Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
The Andean Condor is a giant flying bird found in the Andes mountains and nearby coasts of western South America. This type of vulture bears high esteem in Andean cultures as a symbol of power and health.
It has a wingspan of up to 10.8 feet, with most of its body covered in black feathers and a white ruff of feathers at the base of its neck.
Moreover, it communicates through hisses and grunts as it lacks a syrinx that lets birds call to each other. The Andean Condor is a monogamous species and can live up to 70 years.
21. California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)
The California Condor lives in North America. They have a wingspan of up to 9.8 feet and can reach up to 55 miles per hour. Moreover, they have black feathers, white patches, and a bald head that changes color.
They mainly feed on the carcasses of large animals, helping recycle nutrients back into the ecosystem. However, their reproduction rate is slow, and vulture populations have dwindled due to lead poisoning and other factors. As a result, the California Condor is critically endangered.
22. Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus)
The Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, also known as the Savanna Vulture, boasts a small, compact body with plumage primarily black and a yellow head.
Thriving in savanna, wetland, and grassland habitats, these vultures primarily consume carrion. This bird utilizes a keen sense of sight to locate their next meal, while a strong sense of smell is used to seek decaying organic matter.
23. Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melambrotus)
The Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture, also known as the Forest Vulture, is noticeable for its yellowish head and large dark brown body. It stands out with its sharp beak, designed to tear through tough carrion hides.
This bird occupies the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. While it shares its yellow-headed trait with the Lesser Yellow-Headed Vulture, its habitat contrasts. The latter prefers open, often marshy lowlands, clearly differentiating between these two species.
WEBER, R., HIEBL, I. & BRAUNITZER, G. (1988). High Altitude and Hemoglobin Function in the Vultures Gyps rueppellii and Aegypius monachus. Biological Chemistry, 369(1), 233-240.
BirdLife International. (2021). Gyps bengalensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T22695194A204618615.
BirdLife International. (2021). Gyps indicus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T22729731A204672586.