Vulture, King

King Vulture at the LA Zoo Photo Credit Jamie Pham

Scientific Name: Sarcoramphus papa

The king vulture, along with the remainder of the New World vultures, lacks a syrinx (an organ located at the base of the trachea), allowing only for simple hisses and grunts to be expressed.

The yellow, fleshy caruncle (or wattle) extending from the beak of the king vulture is not a distinguishing characteristic of male and female vultures (as is common with other species); however, it has shown an association with genes coded for disease resistance.

The Mayan King

One of the most common species found throughout Mayan hieroglyphics, the king vulture is distinguishable by the concentric circles surrounding the eyes and the colorful caruncle on its beak. The Mayans used the king vulture as a symbol for the thirteenth day of the month (known as Cozcaquauhtli) which is characterized by the “Way of the Scavenger,” a third path of life that is between that of a predator and that of prey.

To the Mayans, the king vulture held a more ethereal representation. The king vulture was seen as a messenger between humans and the gods, even to the point that it was sometimes depicted as a god itself with the head of a bird and the body of a human. Adding to its influence in Mayan folklore, it was believed that if the shadow of king vulture was to pass over a person, that person was to suffer great misfortune or even death.

The king vulture is listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

King vultures are residents of dense, tropical forests (or in nearby savannas and grasslands) ranging from southern Mexico into northern Argentina. The bright colors of the head and neck allow for King vultures to recognize one another within the dense habitats in which they reside.

King vultures are scavengers, meaning they feed on dead animal masses (known as carrion). In captivity, they are fed a vitamin supplemented protein diet of rats, chicken, and raw meat.

Excluding the two species of condors (Andean and California), the king vulture is the largest of the New World vultures with a wingspan of about six feet, a head to tail length of about two and a half feet, and can weigh upwards of ten pounds. The head and neck of the king vulture are featherless, preventing bacteria from the carrion from ruining its feather as well as exposing the skin to purifying agents of the sun. Suffering from poor olfactory senses, the king vulture relies heavily on keen eyesight to spot food and other vultures. Unlike other species of vultures, the king vulture has a relatively weak beak; however, their beak specializes in ripping through tough-skinned carcasses, giving them an edge over smaller, competing vultures (from which their title “king” is derived).

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