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vulture

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Vultures are one of the most common scavengers in the world

Scary-looking vultures are often seen as nuisances or harbingers of death, but these birds are actually an integral part of natural ecosystems. By opportunistically feeding on the remains of other animals' prey, these scavengers remove animal carcasses from the environment that may contain harmful microbes and disease. However, the number of many species in the world has been drastically reduced due to human activities, which may contribute to the spread of disease.

Condor One

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Three unbelievable facts!

  • Vultures have played a key role throughout human culture. Historically, it was a common sight on the battlefield, feeding on fallen soldiers or civilians. In some African traditions, the bird has a supernatural ability to spot dead or dying prey.
  • Some vultures will vomit food to escape predators. It's not entirely clear why they did this. The vomit may help reduce the weight of the bird before takeoff. Another hypothesis is that it temporarily distracts predators, allowing the birds to make a quick escape.
  • Vultures alternate between periods of relative abundance (eating as much as possible) and long periods of rest and sleep to digest their food.

scientific classification

New World Vulture - Greater Yellow-headed Vulture
The great yellow-headed vulture is one of seven New World species in the vulture family.

© iStock.com/Neil Bowman

Despite common misconceptions, the term "vulture" does not describe a scientific classification of a single group. Instead, it is an informal name for many scavengers with similar characteristics. Taxonomists currently divide vultures into 23 species. They fall into two categories:

Old World – 16 species from Europe, Africa, and Asia, including Egyptian Vulture, Griffon Vulture, Bearded Vulture, Gray Vulture, Rumped-faced Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Rapper Vulture Eagle, white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture, Himalayan vulture, cape vulture, crested vulture, bald-headed vulture, palm vulture and Indian vulture.



New World – 7 species of North and South America, including King Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, California Vulture, and Andean Vulture.

These two groups share many similarities, but are actually somewhat distantly related. Old World vultures belong to the eagle family, which also includes eagles, falcons, kites, and harriers. New World vultures belong to the vulture family, which is a completely separate order.

Vultures are an example of convergent evolution: two populations independently evolve similar traits and behaviors, yet are taxonomically distinct. In other words, they evolved to exploit similar niches despite being part of entirely separate evolutionary lineages.

appearance and behavior

bald eagles and bald eagles
This bearded vulture shows off the vulture's beak, talons and wingspan.

©Aitor Lamadrid Lopez/Shutterstock.com

The vulture's appearance, physiology, and behavior all testify to a remarkable evolutionary adaptation over millions of years to a scavenger-like lifestyle. Baldness is one of the most distinctive features of vultures. It was once thought that this bald spot evolved to keep the feathers from getting wet with blood while eating carcasses, but another possible explanation is that it may also help regulate body temperature. The large, pointed beak has also evolved to tear flesh and muscle off of bone. The bird's claws and feet are better suited for walking than for killing prey.

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The bald eagle is a rather dark and subdued bird in appearance. It is covered in black, white, gray and tan plumage, although a few species add red or orange plumage. Legs often turn white due to the presence of uric acid in the bird's droppings. Uric acid is believed to help kill microbes and regulate foot temperature.

They vary in size, but most species are massive and fearsome like birds of prey. The largest of the Old World vultures is the gray or black vulture. It was just over 3 feet long, had a wingspan of about 9 feet, and weighed nearly 30 pounds. The largest New World condor is a bald eagle with a wingspan of more than 10 feet. By comparison, the giant albatross has a wingspan of almost 11 feet. These birds' unique plumage adaptations make them experts at finding dead or dying animals in the air, miles above the ground. Whenever the weather turns cold, birds sometimes spread their wings to keep warm in the sun.

Gray vultures build a large nest, usually in an old tree or on the edge of a cliff.
The gray vulture is an Old World vulture that usually builds a large nest of twigs in an old tree or on the edge of a cliff.

©serkan mutan/Shutterstock.com

Because of their distinct evolutionary lineages, New World and Old World vultures differ greatly in several key ways. One of the most important differences is their nesting behavior. Old World vultures like to use tree branches to build their nests. New World vultures, on the other hand, do not build nests but tend to lay their eggs on bare surfaces. These nesting areas are sometimes inhabited by large flocks of birds. A flock of vultures is called a field or committee.

Another important difference between the two groups was how they felt. Some New World vultures have a keen sense of smell, which allows them to detect dead bodies from great distances. This is an uncommon feature in many birds. Traditionally, Old World vultures have relied more on vision to find food, as is typical for birds.

New World vultures also lack the throat structure — known as the syrinx — that allows many birds to vocalize. They were still able to hiss and grunt, but not the complex sounds and calls that birds are known for. It also limits their ability to communicate with each other.

Most vulture species tend to spend most of their time within narrow geographic ranges, but northern species like the widespread turkey vulture migrate during winter. Turkey vultures spend most of the summer in the northern United States before migrating south when the weather starts to cool.

Vultures are considered to be one of the ugliest animals in the world.

Habitat

California condor on a rock with wings spread against a blue sky
The California condor is one of the New World condors known for their enormous wingspan (that's only 9 feet!).

©Barbara Ash/Shutterstock.com

As the name suggests, Old World vultures inhabit large swathes of territory in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the exception of Australia and the Pacific islands. The New World condor inhabits a nearly complete territory of southern Canada in the Americas. Both types prefer hot or tropical climates, but also inhabit temperate climates. They can be seen hunting in relatively remote locations, often near large open areas, roosting on cliffs, among trees, and sometimes even on the ground. Vultures tend to avoid human settlements, but may sometimes try to eat roadkill animals or garbage left by people.

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diet

Weeping-faced vulture or Nubian vulture - Torgos tracheliotos, feeding on carcasses in Masai Mara, Kenya. Its size allows it to dominate other scavengers.
The hump-faced or Nubian vulture feeds on carcasses like scavengers.

© Martin Pelanek/Shutterstock.com

Vultures belong to a special class of predators known as scavengers. That means they feed almost exclusively on carrion — the remains of dead bodies — but they don't particularly know what kind of animal they're eating. Although they are not good at hunting, they will not hesitate to kill a wounded animal to help it reduce to carrion. They also sometimes follow a dying animal, patiently waiting for it to die. If an animal's hide is too hard to pierce, they let other predators or scavengers eat it first. They can sometimes be seen alongside other scavengers on the same carcass.

Vultures have highly specialized enzymes (essentially a protein) in their stomachs that neutralize dangerous microbes that would otherwise pose a danger to most animals. In this way, they clean up the decaying carcasses left by other predators in their environment. They are voracious eaters, sometimes eating up to 20% of their body weight at a time. They eat so thoroughly that often only a few carcasses remain. The bearded vulture even eats the bones.

Predators and Threats

Due to their size and strength, they have few natural predators in the wild, but young are often vulnerable to predation by hawks and other birds of prey, as well as big cats such as jaguars. Small mammals have also been known to steal and eat these eggs. Therefore, the nest needs vigilant protection from dangerous predators.

Human activity poses the greatest threat to bald eagles. Some of the most immediate dangers include illegal hunting and electrocution from power lines. They are also threatened by habitat loss in some parts of their natural range. Perhaps the greatest human threat to them is accidental poisoning. In India and Pakistan, toxins seeping into ecosystems have killed entire populations. They die easily when they feed on the carcasses of farm animals laden with drugs.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

Griffon vulture and a chick in her nest. During the breeding season, the birds build nests of twigs on cliff ledges hundreds of feet high.
A griffin vulture in her nest with a chick that will be cared for for several months.

© Dennis Jacobson/Shutterstock.com

Vultures show considerable variability in their reproductive behavior. Each species likely has its own specific breeding season and unique courtship rituals to attract a mate. These birds are mostly monogamous species, tending to have only one mate at a time.

After mating, the female lays about one to three eggs in a clutch. It takes about a month or two for the eggs to fully hatch. In some species, both parents raise and protect the young. Unlike birds of prey, they do not bring back food with their claws, but instead spit food out of specialized bags to feed their young.

After a few months of intensive care, bald eagle chicks will start to feather, which means they will have flying feathers. But even after achieving a certain degree of independence, chicks may not leave the nest immediately. They may choose to stay home to feed and protect the next generation.

For a typical species, juveniles eventually reach full sexual maturity anytime up to eight years. These birds usually live at least 11 years in the wild, but some species can live up to 50 years.

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population

Population numbers appear to be declining globally, putting vultures as a group at risk. According to the IUCN Red List, critically endangered species include the red-headed vulture (less than 10,000 left), the white-rumped vulture (also less than 10,000), the Indian vulture (about 30,000), the bald-headed vulture, and a few others, Many of these are Old World vultures. However, this is not the case for all species. Listed as a species of least concern, the turkey vulture has a wide range throughout South and Central America and the United States. The species is currently legally protected in the United States under the Migratory Bird Act.

In response to declining numbers, some governments have worked to restore natural habitats, eradicate poaching and reduce harmful toxins in the environment. Conservationists are also breeding, breeding and caring for captive birds in an effort to restore their numbers and reintroduce them to their former habitats.

in the zoo

Bald eagles are a major feature of many U.S. zoos, including the San Diego Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and Maryland Zoo. The Oregon Zoo housed a female turkey vulture named Clyde (b. 1985) as part of its Wildlife Live! exhibit.

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The name vulture is believed to be derived from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear.

The New World turkey vulture is one of the most common vulture species in the world. As mentioned earlier, it occupies almost the entire American hemisphere, except for most of Canada. The species gets its name from its resemblance to the common turkey. There are five distinct subspecies of the turkey vulture, some of which overlap with each other in their natural ranges.

Like all vultures, the turkey vulture feeds on the carrion of dead organisms. It rarely hunts live animals. The species is not always large enough to rip off the skin of some carcasses, and sometimes relies on other vultures or birds to help it feed.

Vultures generally pose no threat to humans and often seek to avoid human contact entirely. Although they live as scavengers, due to their strong antimicrobial defenses, they may not spread disease more easily than many other animals, and in fact, they may be less likely to spread disease. This makes them a special class of carnivores.

Bald eagles are widely distributed all over the world. They usually inhabit deserts, plains, bushes and other open areas.

Vultures belong to the animal kingdom.

Vultures belong to the phylum Chordate.

Vultures belong to the class of birds.

Bald eagles belong to the vulture family.

Vultures belong to the order Cathartiformes.

Vultures belong to the genus Cathartes.

Vultures are covered with feathers.

Predators of bald eagles include hawks, snakes and feral cats.

Vultures have large wings and a sharp, curved beak.

Vultures usually lay 2 eggs.

The scientific name of the vulture is Cathartes aura.

Bald eagles can live 20 to 30 years.

Condors have a wingspan of 130 cm to 183 cm (51 in to 72 in).

Bald eagles can fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Vultures lay eggs.