King Vulture

This article primarily focuses on the appearance and identification of the king vulture. It also provides a brief introduction to other aspects of the king vulture’s natural history.

King vultures are easily identified by its size, striking black and White plumage, and ornate neck and head. The appearance of juvenile and subadult birds is rather different from that of the adult.

Common Name: King Vulture
Scientífic Name
Sarcoramphus papa
OrderCathartiformes
FamilyCathartidae
Name in Spanish: Buitre o Zopilote Rey
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Hábitat: Tropical evergreen and semi-open forests
Movements: Largely sedentary
Tendencia de la población: Stable
Meaning of Name: Sarcoramphus: Gr. Sarx= flesh and rhamphos= beak. papa= L. Pope, papa= larger, ruler.  The ruler or largest of flesh-eating birds.

Foto: JJ. Pamplona

  • Adult king vultures are nearly unmistakable where they occur  
  • Juvenile individuals have a similar appearance as that of smaller black-plumaged vultures
  • Male and female king vultures look alike
  • King vultures are more likely to be seen in flight
  • The king vulture is the dominant vulture in most of its range
  • It is widespread but occurs in small numbers

What does a king vulture look like?

The adult king vulture has an ornate appearance. Its black and white plumage and large size make it impossible to miss among forest-dwelling birds.

King vultures are easily recognized by their brightly colored bare and colorful heads and necks. The base of the neck is wrapped around with a gray ruff.

The unfeathered upper half of the neck has shades of orange, red, and yellow. The head has intricately folded multicolored skin and a bright yellow appendage hanging from the cere or nose area.

Adults have piercing white eyes that are noticeable from a distance.

Juveniles have blackish plumage, black heads, and dark brown eyes. In 4 to 5 years, they undergo a series of plumage molts and changes in the color of their heads, necks, and eyes, gaining the adult appearance.

Adult and immature birds often show a bulging bare pink crop that varies in size according to the amount of food the king vulture has in its crop (see photo in the Distribution Section below).

Appearance of an adult king vulture perched

A king vulture can stand 2.5 feet high and weigh 7.5 pounds. Both sexes have similar neck and head features and prominent yellow knobs on their noses. The function of such an appendage is unknown with certainty.

Size and shape

Throughout most of its range, the king vulture is the largest vulture species. Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), lesser yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) and greater yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes melambrotus) (Cathartid vultures), and black vulture (Coragyps atratus) are smaller. 

The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is larger than the king vulture. These two large vultures are found in the same range only in the deciduous forest lowlands of Northwest Peru and perhaps extreme Southwest Ecuador. 

A king vulture has a similar shape and stance to a black vulture. King and black vultures stand more upright and have relatively longer legs than the Cathartid vultures. King and black vultures often stand with their heads lower than the plane of their backs.

Male and female

The king vulture is a monomorphic species, meaning that both the female and the male have the same plumage. 

Males are slightly larger than females, but this difference is difficult to tell even in birds that are perched side by side. 

Male and female measurements

Length (inches)Weight (lb)Wingspan (inches) (male and female)
2.3 – 2.67.5 (males and females)5.6 – 6.6   

Bare Parts

The bare and colorful neck and head of the king vulture are perhaps the most striking parts of its appearance. Juvenile birds are blackish overall. They undergo a plumage and bare parts color transformation in the next 4 to 5 years after leaving the nest.

Adult king vulture

  • Adult king vultures are easily identified by their black and white plumage and striking ornate neck and head.
  • The black and white plumage is shared with the wood and maguari storks. But the long neck, beak, and protruding legs separate the storks from the king vulture.

Juvenile king vulture

  • Juvenile king vultures and Cathartid and black vultures have similar appearances.
  • The Cathartid vultures have heads of different colors.
  • Young king vultures are more likely to be misidentified as black vultures, but the latter is smaller, has a solid black plumage, and silver wingtips.

The neck is bright red on the sides. The front of the neck is gold-yellow, starting from the base of the neck up to the bottom of the bare throat. The back of the neck has a ridge of what appears to be swollen yellow-orange skin that starts from the base of the neck up to the nape, where it turns into folded gray or brown skin that wraps around the bird’s cheeks.

The head is covered in fine bristles, which are dusky on the lower half and gray on the upper half. The crown is bare and bright red.  The area between the base of the beak and the eyes has a bulging bare purple-orange skin.

The iris is white with an orange eyering.

The beak is bright red-orange with a black base. The nose area (cere) and base of the beak have bright yellow, swollen, and wrinkly bare skin with a fleshy and wrinkly appendage hanging from the top of the nose.

The crop: The crop is pale pink to whitish. After a large meal, king vultures show a bare, bulging, and conspicuous crop (see top photo).

The legs and feet are graying but look whitish most of the time due to the habit of most vultures of defecating on their legs as a way to release excess heat.

The king vulture’s plumage changes over time

A young king vulture’s blackish plumage undergoes substantial changes in appearance before attaining the black and white plumage of an adult in 4 to 5 years.

Cathartids and black vultures have the same black plumage from juvenile to adulthood.

An upcoming article will detail the plumage changes of the juvenile and immature king vultures.

Appearance of an adult king vultures in the air

As king vultures patrol the skies, they keep an eye on other vultures. They typically fly at 500 feet above the ground. Even at this elevation, the contrasting black rear half of the bird can be distinguished from the bright white plumage.

Young king vultures

Baby king vultures hatch with a thick layer of white down and pink heads and necks, which turn black after 2 to 3 weeks. The black head and the neck are kept at least for the first year, after which it begins to acquire hues of red and orange.

Juvenile plumage, which replaces the coat of down, is all blackish. Immature birds have white blotches on the underside of their wings, which are visible when flying. As young birds grow older, their belly is the first part of their plumage that begins to turn white, followed by their backs.

See more about the age and plumage changes of the king vulture.

Appearance of juvenil and subadult king vultures in the air

Young and immature king vultures have a variable amount of white on their belly. Birds undergo a continuous molting cycle to attain adult plumage in four to five years. During their juvenile years, king vultures are most likely to be mistaken for smaller black-plumaged vultures.

King vulture behavior 

Most people see king vultures flying high in the sky. Typically, they begin leaving their roost sites four hours after sunrise, which is when thermal up currents begin to form.

Generally, king vultures soar higher than turkey, and greater and lesser yellow-headed, and black vultures where these vultures occur together. Observations of soaring king vultures indicate that they usually fly 500 feet above the ground.

The king vulture perches and roosts in the canopy of tall emergent trees that provide easy access and take-off. When perched in trees, they are inconspicuous and difficult to see.

The second more likely way to see king vultures is around carcasses. Because they do not have a well-developed sense of smell, king vultures are the last to appear at a carcass after the turkey and greater or lesser yellow-headed vultures.

Despite being the last of the vultures to show up at a carcass, king vultures are the dominant species over the other smaller vultures. According to field observations, king vultures do not usually bully other vultures, and they feed together without any disputes.

The king vulture becomes the second dominant bird at carcasses where the king vulture’s range overlaps with that of the larger Andean condor.

Habitat of the king vulture

Habitat use is an important element in bird identification. The king vulture is a bird of mature and pristine forests. Most of the carcasses they eat are found in the forest interior or in rivers that meander through virgin forests.

It generally avoids continuous agricultural and semi-urban areas. However, it appears to be more flexible in different parts of its range, where it regularly feeds on carcasses found in disturbed and deforested habitats.

Distribution

Small numbers of king vultures occur in parts of all of the Americas.

In the absence of a study on the movements of the king vulture, observations of nests and known individuals suggest they are sedentary. Young birds may travel regionally.

King vultures in South America are found in most forest types and open scrub habitats to approximate latitude 30 South. It avoids high elevations in the Andes and other mountain chains. It is also absent from the Atacama Desert in western Peru and Chile and the treeless Pampas of Argentina.

However, it is found in the deciduous forests of Northwest Peru and Southwest Ecuador. Oddly, it appears to be rare in the Choco rainforest of Western Ecuador and Colombia.

It is also found in about one-third of the southern part of Mexico to approximately latitude 20 North.

The king vulture is primarily a bird of lowland areas. Some individuals can be found at heights of up to 4,950 feet along the foothills of the Andes and perhaps other mountain chains, with occasional vagrants climbing considerably higher altitudes. 

Birds that look like a king vulture

A king vulture shares a similar black and white plumage pattern as those of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) and maguari stork (Cicconia maguaruari).

However, storks have a rather different silhouette with a long neck and beak and long legs that protrude beyond their tails.

Young blackish king vultures can be confused with black, turkey, and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures.

Young king vultures can be distinguished from the Cathartid vultures by their larger size, white blotches underside their wings, broad wings, and short tail. Cathartic vultures have long, narrow wings and relatively long, narrow tails. 

Perched and in flight, young king vultures resemble black vultures. However, young king vultures are larger, have white blotches on the underside of their wings, and do not have the silver wingtips of the black vulture.

Juvenile king vultures can resemble adult Andean Condors in areas where the king vulture and Andean Condor ranges overlap. However, the Andean condor is larger and has a snow-white ruff on its neck. In flight, juvenile king vultures have white blotches on their underwings.

King vulture vocalizations

King vultures lack the “sound chamber” in their syrinx, which helps songbirds produce sounds. Hence, the sounds they make have a clucking and guttural quality.

Adult birds can produce guttural croaking calls during interactions between males and females. They also produce croaking calls when they show aggression to other birds and even humans. When researchers approached a king vulture nest, the breeding pair made croaking calls and flew from branch to branch around the nest. King vultures can also make barely audible grunts and hissing noises when interacting with each other and with the chick in the nest.