New World Vultures: Cathartidae

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The vultures living in the New World, North and South America, generally have dark black, brown, and gray feathers. However condors and king vultures also have some white feathers. The color of the skin on the birds' bare heads and necks are combinations of gray, red, blue, and yellow. The birds weigh between 2.1 pounds and 33 pounds (0.94 and 15 kilograms). The length of the birds in this family ranges from 23 to 53 inches (58 to 134 centimeters) from their beaks to the end of their tails.

Until recently, New World vultures were grouped with hawks as birds of prey. But scientists have found that these vultures are more similar to storks than they are to hawks. For example, their feet are weak like storks, and they do not have the strong, grasping claws that hawks use to catch live animals.


New World vultures range from southern Canada to the southern tip of South America. The turkey vulture and the black vulture are the two most common vultures in North and South America, and they are sometimes called buzzards.


These birds can live in almost any habitat, from seashores to deserts to forests, as long as they can find carrion, dead and decaying animals, to eat. All vultures hunt by soaring high and looking down for food. However turkey vultures and yellow-headed vultures have an especially good sense of smell and can sniff out small, dead animals in dense forests without having to see them first.


New World vultures are scavengers, eating carrion rather than killing their own food. They wait for other animals, or cars, to kill their food. They also eat animals that die from disease or old age. They usually find their food while soaring high in the air. If they see other vultures flying down or eating on the ground, they try to join them. The biggest birds, the condors and king vultures, can tear apart the hides of large mammals. But most of these vultures get at the meat through natural openings, such as the mouths and eyes. Or, if an animal has been killed by a wolf or other predator, they may watch and wait until the predator leaves and then take their turn.


Before flying in the morning, New World vultures usually find a sunny spot where they can spread their wings. The sunshine warms their bodies and helps to straighten their flight feathers. They wait until the winds pick up before taking off. They roost together at night and they hunt for food in flocks, but at breeding time they spread out and nest by themselves.

New World vultures usually mate or life. As part of their courtship display, a pair flies high over the nesting area with wingtips almost touching. This may tell neighboring pairs to stay away. Female vultures lay their eggs directly on the ground in the floor of a cave or in a tree hole. The condors and king vultures lay only one egg and other vultures usually lay two. The parents take turn sitting on the eggs and feeding the chicks. Young condors learn to fly at about six months, and the smaller vultures learn by the time they are three months.


Most creatures would get sick or die if they ate the decaying meat that vultures eat. Of course, vultures prefer their meat to be as fresh as possible. But often they have to wait for the predators that killed the animal to go away. Or they have to let dead animals decay for a while before they can tear it apart. Vultures have chemicals in their stomachs that protect them from the germs in their food. So if meat gets rotten while they wait, it's still okay for vultures.


New World vultures have been important in the myths and legends of people for thousands of years. In South America, pictures of Andean condors have been found on ancient pottery, carvings, and cloth. In North America, vultures were thought of as symbols of death. Many people are fascinated by vultures and like to watch them in action.


California condors are listed as Critically Endangered, which means they are facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Andean condors are considered Near Threatened, meaning they are close to becoming endangered. Not all vultures are in trouble. In fact, turkey vultures have been spreading northward into Canada for the last thirty years.


Physical characteristics: The feathers on king vultures' bellies and backs are white, and the large flight feathers on their wings are black. It is the most colorful New World vulture with bright red, yellow, orange, blue, and purple patches on its wrinkled head, its smooth neck, and the wattle, a flap of skin, above its beak. The length of a king vulture is between 28 and 32 inches (71 and 81 centimeters), and it weighs between 6.6 and 8.3 pounds (3 and 3.8 kilograms).

Geographic range: King vultures live from southern Mexico to northern Argentina in South America.

Habitat: King vultures are most commonly found in rainforests, but they also live in grasslands and among grazing cattle.

Diet: King vultures find carrion by circling high in the sky. If they notice smaller vultures eating at a carcass, king vultures fly down and take over. King vultures can tear apart large animals better than the smaller vultures.

Behavior and reproduction: King vulture females lay a single egg in a hollow tree, sometimes high off the ground. Both parents care for the chick. Young birds can fly at three months, but they depend on their parents for feeding for a few more months.

King vultures and people: King vultures are so colorful that artists like to use them as the subject of their work.

Conservation status: King vultures are not listed as endangered. ∎


Physical characteristics: The California condor is one of the largest birds in North America and one of the rarest. They have black feathers except for a triangle of white under each wing. Adults also have red heads and necks and "collars" of fluffy black feathers at the bottom of its neck. California condors are between 46 and 53 inches (117 and 134 centimeters) long from their beaks to the end of their tails, and they weigh from 17 to 24 pounds (7.7 to 10.9 kilograms).

Geographic range: The last of the wild California condors were captured in 1987 in order to keep them from going extinct, dying out, and so they could be raised in captivity. So far, the birds have been returned to the wild in the mountains of California, Arizona, Utah, and in Mexico just south of the border.

Habitat: California condors roost and nest in mountains where strong winds allow them to fly long distances. They search for carcasses in open areas such as grasslands and beaches.

Diet: Not only do California condors eat the carcasses of wild land mammals and farm animals, but they also look for dead ocean animals along the seashore. With their large, powerful beaks they are able to tear open the thick skins of these animals.

Behavior and reproduction: California condors are curious birds, and they often find food by watching what other species are doing. Condors can travel hundreds of miles in a single day in search of food. At the age of five or six years, they find for a mate for life. The female lays one egg every other year in a cave or on a cliff ledge. Both parents incubate, sit on and warm the egg, which hatches after about fifty-six days. The parents care for the young bird long after it learns to fly at the age of six months.

California condors and people: Before Europeans came to America, Native Americans along the California and Oregon coasts admired California condors and honored them in stories and art. They also used the birds' feathers and bones for ceremonies. As Europeans started to settle in the west, they shot, trapped, and poisoned condors because they thought the birds killed young farm animals. By the late twentieth century people realized that this was not true, but it was almost too late to save the birds from extinction.

Conservation status: California condors are listed as Critically Endangered. In 1987, all wild condors were captured to prevent them from going extinct. By the year 2004, breeding programs had increased the California condor population to more than 200, and about half of the population had been released back into the wild. ∎



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New World Vultures: Cathartidae

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New World Vultures: Cathartidae