20 Fun Facts About Vultures
By Melissa Mayntz, About.com Guide
The Egyptian vulture is one of the world's 23 vulture species.
- There are 23 vulture species in the world, and at least one type of vulture is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. These are relatively adaptable birds found in a range of habitats, including suburban regions, but even so, 14 species are considered either threatened or endangered.
- Vulture species are divided into New World and Old World groups depending on their ranges. There are more vulture species in the Old World, and they are not closely related to New World vultures but are often considered together because they fill a similar ecological niche. New World vultures may be more closely related to storks than to other raptors.
- Unlike many raptors, vultures are relatively social and often feed, fly or roost in large flocks. A group of vultures is called a committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.
- Vultures are carnivorous and eat carrion almost exclusively. They prefer fresh meat but are able to consume carcasses that may have rotted so much as to be dangerous for other animals. This gives vultures a unique and important ecological niche because they help prevent the spread of diseases from old, rotting corpses.
- Vultures have excellent senses of sight and smell to help them locate food, and they can find a dead animal from a mile or more away. Because of this, vultures often have large territories and will spend a lot of time soaring to locate their next meal.
- It is a myth that vultures will circle dying animals waiting to feed. These birds are powerful fliers and will soar on thermals while they look for food, but when they locate a carcass, they will approach it quickly to begin feeding before other predators find it.
- Vultures have bare heads and often bare necks so that when they feed on rotting carcasses, bacteria and other parasites cannot burrow into their feathers to cause infections. This allows the birds to stay healthier while feeding on material that would easily infect other animals.
- Vultures have relatively weak legs and feet with blunt talons, though they do have powerful bills. If a carcass is too stiff for them to rip open, they will wait for another predator to open the flesh before they feed, which is why vultures are often seen in the company of other carrion-eating animals.
- A vulture’s stomach acid is significantly stronger and more corrosive than that of other animals or birds. This allows these scavengers to feed on rotting carcasses that may be infected with dangerous bacteria, because their stomach acid will kill that bacteria so it does not threaten the vulture.
- While vultures eat mostly dead animals, they are capable of attacking and will often prey on extremely sick, wounded or infirm prey, especially if food has been scarce and there are no carcasses nearby.
- It is a myth that vultures will prey on healthy livestock, but they are still regularly persecuted by farmers and ranchers who believe the birds to be a threat to their animals.
- Because vultures have weak feet and legs, they do not carry prey back to their chicks. Instead, they will gorge at a carcass and regurgitate food from their crop to feed their young.
- Vultures urinate on their legs and feet to help cool off on hot days, and their urine also helps kill any bacteria or parasites they’ve picked up from walking through carcasses to help keep the birds healthier.
- The Andean condor, found in South America, has the largest wingspan of any vulture in the world, with a spread of 10-11 feet when the bird extends its wings.
- The crow-sized hooded vulture is the smallest of these birds with a wingspan of only five feet. It is found sub-Saharan Africa.
- When threatened, vultures vomit to lighten their body weight so they can escape more easily into flight. Vomiting also serves as a defense mechanism to deter predators that may be threatening the birds.
- New World vultures lack a syrinx and are nearly silent. They do not have songs, and their typical vocalizations are limited to grunts, hisses and similar sounds.
- Vultures face many threats that are endangering their populations. Poisoning is the biggest threat to vultures, primarily from toxins or lead in the carcasses they eat. Other hazards include car collisions as they feed on road kill and electrocution from collisions with power lines.
- Scientists have begun to study vultures’ unique senses and abilities and are considering using the birds to help find bodies from crimes. Studying how a vulture finds a body and how quickly it can consume the body can be useful for forensic analysis.
- Vultures enjoy their own unique holiday, International Vulture Awareness Day, which is celebrated on the first Saturday of each September. The holiday is a way to raise awareness about these unique birds, and hundreds of zoos, aviaries, nature preserves and bird refuges worldwide participate each year with fun and informational activities about vultures.