White-backed vulture, Africa

Vultures are one of the environment’s most necessary – but often overlooked – creatures.

Today is International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD09), and I’m participating in IVAD’s blog festival – “Blog for Vultures” – with a list of 16 cool facts about these amazing birds.

16 Cool Facts About Vultures

  1. There are 23 species of “vultures”: 16 Old World vultures found in Africa, Asia, and Europe, and seven New World vultures (including the two condors) found in the Americas. (The list is provided below.)
  2. Old World and New World vultures are actually not closely related. However, because both groups perform highly specialized functions, they have developed similar biological traits.
  3. Old World vultures do not have a good sense of smell – they rely exclusively on incredible eyesight to locate food – a soaring vulture can spot a 3-foot animal carcass from 4 miles away.
  4. Several species of New World vultures have a good sense of smell, unusual for raptors.
  5. The Rueppell’s griffon vulture is the world’s highest flying bird. In 1973, one collided with an airplane off the Ivory Coast; at the time, the plane was flying at 37,000 feet.
  6. Vultures can eat up to 20 percent of their own body weight in one sitting.
  7. Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that contains special acids that will dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria.
  8. Vultures do not go after healthy prey, but will attack wounded and dying animals.
  9. New World vultures have the unusual habit of urohydrosis, or defecating on their legs to cool them evaporatively.
  10. The bald, or lightly-feathered, head is specially designed to stay clean even when confronted with blood and bodily fluids present in the carcasses. Any remaining germs are baked off by the sun.
  11. A group of vultures is called a venue, and when circling the air, a group of vultures is called a kettle.
  12. By consuming the carcasses of diseased animals, vultures prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases such as rabies and anthrax among animals and humans. Check out how declining vulture populations are linked to the spread of rabies in humans.
  13. Most vulture species mate for life.
  14. The vomit of a vulture, followed by the action of flying away, is a vulture’s most common defensive tactic against a predator or adversary. If the food is relatively undigested, the predator is rewarded with a free meal. If the food is mostly digested, the foul-smelling substance acts as a deterrent and will sting the eyes of a predator if it lands in their face .
  15. Most vultures are social and several species can often be seen feeding together on the same carcass.
  16. One of the few animals to use tools, Egyptian vultures use rocks to break open ostrich eggs – check out the video below:

List of Old World and New World vulture species

Old World vultures:

  • Eurasian Black Vulture or Monk Vulture, Aegypius monachus
  • Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus
  • Palm-nut vulture, Gypohierax angolensi
  • Griffon vulture, Gyps fulvus
  • Indian White-Rumped vulture, Gyps bengalensis
  • Rüppell’s vulture or Rüppell’s griffon vulture, Gyps rueppelli
  • Long-billed Vulture or Indian Vulture, Gyps indicus
  • Slender-billed Vulture, Gyps tenuirostris
  • Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Gyps himalayensis
  • White-backed Vulture, Gyps africanus
  • Cape Griffon, Gyps coprotheres
  • Hooded Vulture, Necrosyrtes monachus
  • Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus
  • Red-headed Vulture, Sarcogyps calvus
  • Lappet-faced Vulture, Torgos tracheliotus
  • White-headed Vulture, Trigonoceps occipitalis

New World vultures, including condors:

  • Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, Cathartes melambrotus
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Cathartes burrovianus
  • King Vulture, Sarcorhamphus papa
  • American Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus
  • California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus
  • Andean Condor, Vultur gryphus

Not-so-cool facts about vultures

India’s vulture population has suffered a catastrophic decline from 40 million to just 60,000 vultures, due to diclofenac poisoning – leaving three species of Gyps vultures in danger of extinction.

Vulture conservation efforts in Namibia are threatened, due to farmers continuing to illegally use poison against suspected predators. Simply by doing their part to keep the environment clean, lappet-faced vultures are being killed when they consume poisoned carcasses.


Thank you for helping to celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day by taking a moment to read the above lists!

You might also enjoy yesterday’s photo gallery of 10 vulture species to celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day 2009.

To learn more about International Vulture Awareness Day 2009 (IVAD09), visit ivad09.org.

Sources: Discovery, BBC Nature, Avianweb, Wired

Image: flickr.com / CC BY-SA 2.0