Attracted by the smell of death, vultures are often misunderstood, not to mention their appearance in popular culture to symbolize the end of life. Through this list of vulture facts, join us as we dispel the misconceptions and reveal their true role.
If you don't know, many of these scavengers exist worldwide. The 23 species are separated into New World and Old World vultures, including Black Vultures and Cape Griffon Vultures, respectively. So why did nature create these creatures? Let's find out by browsing the vulture facts below.
Related: To dispel misconceptions of another misunderstood animal, save our bat facts.
Vultures are obligate scavengers in the animal kingdom, meaning they only eat carrion and rarely hunt for live prey2. They are also the only land animals with this lifestyle in the wild. By eating dead or dying animals, vultures are nature's waste disposal system.
Additionally, vultures have exceptional eyesight, allowing them to spot fallen animals from long distances. They also have a keen sense of smell that detects the stench of rotting flesh, often before other predators can.
Their beaks are also stronger and more curved than most birds, enabling them to tear apart dead animals' tough skin and muscles.
Despite their diet, vultures do not fight over food like many carnivores. Instead, their social structure lets them dine peacefully.
The Andean Condor, native to the Andean mountains and part of the New World vultures, has a wingspan of ten feet. That is wider than the average height of a human being! It holds the title of the largest wingspan among all vultures in the world. Though it has the largest wingspan, it is not the heaviest vulture; that would be the Eurasian griffon vulture.
On the other hand, the bird's wings, specifically the Rüppell's griffon vulture, impressively enable them to fly over 37,000 feet above sea level. This feat makes them the highest-flying creature in the kingdom.
Moreover, these wings feature finger-like primary feathers that facilitate effortless gliding through mountainous terrain, conserving the bird's energy.
Unlike bald eagles with feathered heads, vultures have actual bald heads. The following vulture fact explains the purpose of this characteristic.
Unlike many other birds, vultures are bald, a strategic adaptation suited explicitly to their scavenging lifestyle. The vulture's bald head keeps them clean during mealtimes. It helps regulate their body temperature by soaking up the sun's warmth directly on their skin.
Additionally, some species of vultures have colored heads, such as the Turkey Vulture. Researchers believe that the bright heads and caruncles of these scavengers could be a form of communication1.
Inside a vulture's stomach is acid as corrosive as the acid in a car battery. Its corrosiveness helps vultures eat and digest week-old carcasses that would otherwise kill other creatures.
The vulture's potent stomach acid has a pH of 1.0, eliminating harmful bacteria and viruses, including botulism and anthrax. Additionally, this acid efficiently breaks down bones, a dietary staple for these birds. Their ability to eat carcasses and remove these pathogens is extremely valuable for the environment3.
Not all birds can produce melodic calls, which include vultures. The scavengers lack the syrinx, a specialized vocal organ in birds, rendering them unable to make the typical sounds of birdsong.
Despite this limitation, vultures can grunt, hiss, and groan. These sounds convey messages like warning signals and mating calls. Vultures also use visual cues and body language to communicate with each other, especially during feeding or mating.
As unsanitary as the following vulture facts sound, these are still unique adaptations.
When disturbed, vultures have a unique method of self-defense. Rather than using their talons or beak, the turkey vultures, part of the New World vultures, regurgitate their stomach contents while in flight, allowing them to escape quickly.
After eating an animal carcass, its remains can weigh down the bird. By regurgitating its food, the turkey vulture reduces its weight and uses it as a propulsion mechanism to fly away swiftly. The dropped meal distracts the predator, leaving it to deal with the repulsive pile of mess and its stench.
Vultures pee on their legs as a survival tactic through urohidrosis. Their acidic urine kills the bacteria they may have picked up while feeding on decomposing animal remains. By peeing down their legs, vultures disinfect themselves and stay healthy.
Apart from its disinfectant properties, this technique also helps vultures to stay cool in hot environments. As the liquid evaporates, it cools down their bodies, much like how humans sweat to lower body temperature. This natural air conditioning system is critical for vultures to maintain a steady body temperature, even amid the blistering heat.
Despite their intriguing diet and behaviors mentioned above, these scavengers are surprisingly loving birds. The following vulture facts talk about how they multiply.
Once a vulture finds a mate, they remain together for life and share the responsibilities of caring for their chicks. Vultures return to their nesting sites, often located in inaccessible cliffs or treetops, year after year.
During the breeding season, the pair collaborates to raise their single chick. Given the chick's slow maturity rate, the couple spends significant energy and time to ensure the next generation's survival. Both parents take on egg incubation, chick nourishment, and protection.
Newly hatched vultures depend entirely on their parents for one year, longer than many other raptors. The young vultures grow and learn essential skills during this time.
The parents, specifically the black vultures, guide the fledglings in secluded nests, teaching them how to use their wings, find food, and navigate vulture society. Vultures usually only hatch one egg yearly, so each fledgling is precious, and the parents invest a lot of energy into ensuring their survival.
During this year, the fledglings strengthen their flight muscles, learn to forage, and understand their place in the vulture community. They also develop their bald heads.
After a year of intensive education, the fledglings leave the nest but remain close to their parents and continue learning.
Based on IUCN reports, the current state of vultures is concerning. Of the 23 vulture species, 16 face extinction threats or have already been classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Some critically endangered species include the red-headed vulture and hooded vulture. Although the rest of the species have near-threatened and least concern status, some have decreasing population trends, like the bearded vulture.
What threatens vulture populations? The top issues are urbanization, deforestation, and agricultural encroachment on their natural habitats. The loss of trees and farmland reduces the available living space for these birds.
Furthermore, vultures also face poisoning. The use of veterinary drugs like diclofenac on livestock led to their deaths. Poachers also sometimes intentionally poison carcasses to kill vultures. Hunting is another threat in some cultures, which consider them to have medicinal or magical properties.
If vulture populations continue to decline, it could upset the environment's delicate balance. Taking action to protect vultures is critical for our future, and the world vultures belong.
Remember to share these vulture facts on social media to debunk misconceptions about these sky scavengers. You can also promote these birds by sharing raptor biologist Munir Virani's Ted Talk about why we should love vultures.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with V.
Graves, G. R. (2016). Head color and caruncles of sympatricCathartesvultures (Aves: Cathartidae) in Guyana and their possible function in intra- and interspecific signaling. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 129(1), 66–75.
Ruxton, G. D., & Houston, D. C. (2004). Obligate vertebrate scavengers must be large soaring fliers. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 228(3), 431–436.
Buechley, E. R., & Sekercioglu, C. H. (2016). Vultures. Current Biology, 26(13), R560–R561.