King Vulture Food Habits

The king vulture feeds nearly exclusively on carrion and is an essential component of scavenger communities. It depends on smaller vultures to find a carcass, but smaller vultures depend on the king vulture to open up large carcasses. In this article, you will learn about the food habits of the king vulture.

  • The king vulture is primarily a carrion feeder
  • It forages for food alone
  • The king vulture relies on other vultures to find food
  • It can trap small live prey on the ground
  • In wild areas, wild animals constitute 100% of its diet
  • At a carcass, the king vulture is dominant over other vultures
  • Bacteria in their food does not affect king vultures
    Photo: Carlos Bran.

What does a king vulture eat?

The king vulture feeds nearly exclusively on carcasses of mammals, fish, or reptiles. They have been observed eating fruits to supplement their diet, but this is an unusual occurrence.

Occasionally, king vultures will prey on small, live animals that they can trap on the ground. Small snakes, small mammals, maggots in carcasses, and large insects are examples.

Does a king vulture have a preferred food?

It is unclear whether the king vulture prefers one type of food over another. Field observations suggest they eat whatever is available to them.

According to some accounts, king vultures prefer large carcasses, such as tapirs, peccaries, and caimans. However, if that is all they can find, they will take small carcasses. King vultures are regularly observed feeding on carcasses of all sizes, from mice to tapirs and domestic cows.

It may be that king vultures prefer large carcasses because they are available to scavengers for a longer period of time and are more likely to be found by king vultures, too.

In general, smaller carcasses are consumed faster by smaller vultures and other animals and are less likely to be found by the less common king vulture.

King vultures feed nearly exclusively on carrion. They attend carcasses of any size without show an apparent preference. Photo: Isaias Santos.

king vulture also eat fruit and vegetables

The king vulture can supplement its diet with fresh wild fruit in spite of its preference for carrion. They have been observed eating palm fruit and even going down to the ground to collect fallen fruit. However, fruit consumption is rare.

As of yet, no study has examined the diet of a king vulture in detail.

The king vulture eats both wild and domestic animals.

The king vulture is a carcass generalist and will consume whatever food is available to them. In wild places, they mostly consume the carcasses of wild animals. Where carcasses of livestock are available, their diet includes carcasses of cows, donkeys, and other livestock. 

In contrast to the black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), the king vulture avoids humans. King vultures would never be found looking for food in garbage piles in semi-urban areas.

Do king vulture vultures feed on live prey?

King vultures readily eat small live prey they can catch. They have been observed catching and killing snakes and sick or wounded small mammals. 

However, they are unlikely to attack animals that can defend themselves and cause damage to the king vulture. Like other scavengers, the king vulture has weak feet and straight stubby talons. They are physically unable to grab things with their feet.

King vultures are able to tear meat from carcasses using their beak but are unable to grab, hold, and subdue any prey with their feet.

How do king vultures find dead animals?

A king vulture uses primarily its vision and the help of other vultures to locate carcasses. Whether a king vulture uses its sense of smell to locate carcasses is debatable. 

The king vulture uses its vision to locate carcasses directly on the ground or to monitor the activities of black vultures and the Cathartid vultures.

The Cathartid vultures include the turkey vulture, greater yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes melambrotus), and lesser yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes burrovianus). Cathartid vultures have a remarkable sense of smell and are able to sniff even mouse-sized carcasses in the floor of dense canopied tropical forests. 

Using its vision king vultures find food as follows:  

  1. Monitoring the activities of other foraging king vultures. King vultures soar across extensive areas at heights between 500 to 650 ft while keeping track of what other king vultures are doing. When a king vulture drops to the ground at high speed it generally means that it is going to a carcass. 

Other soaring king vultures notice this activity and head towards where the dropping vulture is going to inspect if there is a carcass involved. 

  1. Monitoring the activities of the cathartid and black vultures. Cathartid vultures fly close to the ground or just above the forest canopy sniffing for carcasses.

    Black vultures have a not well-developed sense of smell but are numerous and typically fly higher than the cathartid vultures. 

The king vulture appears not to have a well-developed sense but soars above the other vultures monitoring their activities.

When the more numerous black vultures detect a cathartid vulture that finds a carcass they follow it to the carcass. This activity is observed by the king vulture flying above and also follows the black vultures.

King vultures also get clues from black and cathartid vultures returning to carcasses they were feeding on the day before. King vultures also observe other vultures congregated on the ground or trees as clues for the presence of a carcass.

Cathartid vultures are nearly always the first to arrive at a carcass, followed by black vultures and at last, the king vulture.

King vultures soar and glide over large areas monitoring the activities of smaller vultures. Upon detecting actions from other vultures that indicate the presence of a carcass, the king vulture drops from high altitude making a booming sound with its wings.

Can king vultures smell a carcass?

Whether king vultures have a well-developed sense of smell and are able to find dead animals on their own is debatable. Two studies show contrasting results.

One study conducted using king vultures in captivity found that the birds in the study were unable to find a hidden carcass in their enclosure. This study supports the idea that king vultures indeed do not have a well-developed sense of smell and depend on other vultures to find a carcass.

A separate study conducted in Costa Rica found that king vultures were the first to arrive at hidden carcasses on the floor of a dense canopied forest. This study gives support to the idea that the king vulture does have a well-developed sense of smell and is able to find a carcass on its own. 

It is more likely that the king vulture finds food using its limited sense of smell and also monitors the activities of other vultures to find a carcass 

How do other vultures depend on the king vulture?

In his studies of vulture communities Helter (1994) found that the community of scavenging vultures had beak and head morphologies that enable them to do different things.

Based on the skull and beak morphology the author classifies vultures as:

  • Scrapers include Cathartid vultures. They scrape meat off bones and from narrow recesses. Their skull is small and their beaks are relatively weak. 
  • Gulpers include the black vulture, which has a small skull and relatively long and narrow beak. They are able to grab chunks of loose meat and gulp them.
  • Rippers include the king vulture, which has a larger size, big skull, and short and strong beak able to rip tissue and skin.

Cathartid vultures are the only ones able to find carcasses using their amazing sense of smell. King vultures are the least strong.

Black vultures do not have a well-developed sense of smell and depend on their vision and the cathartid vultures to find food. Black vultures are the most diet generalist of all vultures and are adapted to eat many types of food.

King vultures appear not to have a well-developed sense of smell and also depend on their vision and the cathartid and other vultures to find food. King vultures are diet specialists and feed nearly exclusively on carrion.

The three vulture species’ morphologies, adaptations to find food, and style of feeding tells the story of what each scavenger can and cannot do. Cathartid vultures can find hidden carcasses of all sizes. They can open and consume small carcasses but are unable to do much with large mammals and reptiles that have thick skin. 

Black vultures are opportunistic, and occur in many habitat types, usually in large numbers. They depend on the cathartid vultures to find carcasses, but being diet generalists, they can find their own food. Black vultures are ill-equipped to rip thick skin but will gulp chunks of soft meat once it becomes available. 

King vultures are specialized carrion feeders that occur in very small numbers. They depend on the cathartid vultures to find carcasses, as well as on the numerous black vultures and their reactions to the cathartid vultures.

King vultures are equipped to rip thick skin, pull, and even flip medium-sized carcasses. Both cathartid and black vultures need the larger and stronger king vulture to rip through the carcass’s orifices and open up access to food inside it. 

The typical sequence is that cathartid vultures find the carcass and get to it first followed by black vultures. They are limited about how much of the carcass they can get until king vultures show up and open up access to the carcass’s interior. 

King vultures get the first access to the carcass and can gorge themselves on food. However, king vultures are usually present in pairs or family groups of three individuals. As much as they are able to ingest and store food in their crops, there always be plenty of food for the smaller vultures.

Vulture hierarchy at a carcass

In a carcass, a clear hierarchy is evident, with the king vulture dominating over the cathartid vultures and the black vulture.

In spite of Cathartid vultures’ essential role in finding a carcass and arriving first, they are the last in the pecking order. The king vulture is always the dominant species followed by the numerous and aggressive black vultures.

In light of the king vulture’s function, the hierarchy at the carcass is necessary. The Cathartid vultures are good at finding carcasses, but can’t do much with large animals with thick skin. To gain access to the content inside the thick skin, they need a king vulture.

A king vulture exerts its presence because of its sheer size and strong beak. Upon arriving at the carcass, other vultures retreat without a visible challenge.

In the deciduous woodlands of northwest Peru and southwest Ecuador, the king vulture takes the second place. In this region, the king vulture and the massive Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) occur together where the latter is always the dominant vulture at carcasses of any size.

Why don’t king vultures get sick from eating rotten meat?

King vultures have developed dual physiological fronts to combat harmful bacteria in the food they eat, including:

  • Utilizing very strong gastric acids to neutralize harmful bacteria in their stomachs and
  • An ability to handle harmful bacteria using a powerful immune system.

A study that analyzed the gut content of 26 king vultures found that they have very strong stomach gastric acids capable of breaking even the DNA of the meat they eat. These strong chemicals easily kill the most harmful bacteria.

Do king vultures kill their prey?

King vultures are primarily carrion feeders rather than predators. They do not kill live  prey but are opportunistic. King vultures will attack and kill small mammals, reptiles, or large insects if they can catch them on the ground. 

There is no evidence of king vultures being aggressive to even dying animals. They have been seen perched nearby dying large mammals, perhaps attracted by the presence of black vultures.

Do king vultures attack and carry chickens, dogs, cats, and livestock?

King vultures are not predators but primarily carrion feeders; they eat carcasses of dead animals.

King vultures are not equipped to catch, kill and carry another animal using their feet like other birds of prey. Comparatively, they have feet that look more like those of chickens than those of hawks. 

A king vulture is physically incapable of grasping things with its feet. Their claws are straight and weak unlike the hooked and strong claws of a “true” bird of prey that uses its feet for capturing, subduing, and killing its prey. Given the opportunity, a king vulture can take small animals by stumping them with their feet, using mostly its beak to kill them.

Having said that, hungry king vultures can potentially attack sick and incapacitated animals, including domestic animals and livestock. However, the king vulture is less likely to come in contact with livestock and other domestic animals because they prefer large expanses of pristine habitat.

It is unclear whether king vultures join black vultures around livestock giving birth. They are shy and overly cautious vultures that hesitate to come down directly to a carcass as black vultures do. 

This article expands on black vulture feeding behavior around livestock.

Do king vultures attack humans?

King vultures are far from attacking humans. In what seems poorly understood, king vultures are shy, skittish, and overly cautious.

When descending on a carcass where other vultures are already present, king vultures never do it directly. They first perch on a nearby tree and assess the situation for approximately an hour. Then descend to the ground and approach the carcass, always alert to the surroundings.

At carcasses where multiple species of vulture are present, the king vulture shows the quickest reaction to the presence of humans. They will take off first and perch further from the carcass until humans are gone and then take the longest time to return to the carcass.

The reason for such behavior is not well understood as they don’t have a history of prosecution by humans.

King vultures generally have no interaction with humans. Besides consuming carcasses of cows and other large mammals at cattle ranches adjacent to continuous forests, humans and king vultures do not come in contact as black and cathartic vultures do.

Would a king vulture eat another king vulture? 

Based on what we know about the more diet generalist and abundant black vulture (Coragyps atratus), king vultures are unlikely to eat a carcass of their own species.

Black vultures refuse to eat the carcasses of a member of the same species; they are even scared of them. However, there has been an instance where a black vulture was observed eating the carcass of another black vulture in unusual circumstances.

In times of food scarcity, vultures and other animals may feed on food types they would typically refuse. It is not known whether the king vulture would eat the carcass of another king vulture.