Approximate Cathartidae range map
Yellow – Summer-only range of turkey vulture
Green – At least one species present year-round
Vulturidae Illiger, 1811
New World vulture
New World vulture or condor family Cathartidae contains seven
species in five genera, all but one of which are monotypic. It
includes five vultures and two condors found in warm and temperate
areas of the Americas. The "New World" vultures were widespread in
both the Old World and
North America during the Neogene.
Old World vultures
Old World vultures and New World vultures do not form a single clade,
but the two groups appear similar because of convergent evolution.
Vultures are scavenging birds, feeding mostly from carcasses of dead
animals without apparent ill effects.
Bacteria in the food source,
pathogenic to other vertebrates, dominate the vulture's gut flora, and
vultures benefit from the bacterial breakdown of carrion tissue. New
World vultures have a good sense of smell, whereas Old World vultures
find carcasses exclusively by sight. A particular characteristic of
many vultures is a bald head, devoid of feathers.
1 Taxonomy and systematics
1.1 Extinct species and fossils
3 Distribution and habitat
4 Behaviour and ecology
4.3 Tolerance to bacterial toxins in decaying meat
5 Status and conservation
6 In culture
7 See also
10 External links
Taxonomy and systematics
A pervious nostril is typical of the family
The New World vultures comprise seven species in five genera. The
genera are Coragyps, Cathartes, Gymnogyps, Sarcoramphus, and Vultur.
Of these, only
Cathartes is not monotypic. The family's scientific
name, Cathartidae, comes from cathartes, Greek for "purifier".
Although New World vultures have many resemblances to Old World
vultures they are not very closely related. Rather, they resemble Old
World vultures because of convergent evolution. Phylogenetic
analyses including all Cathartidae species found two primary clades:
Coragyps atratus) together with the three Cathartes
species (Lesser C. burrovianus and Greater C. melambrotus
Yellow-headed Vultures, and Turkey
Vulture C. aura), and (2) King
Sarcoramphus papa), California (
Gymnogyps californianus) and
Vultur gryphus) Condors.
New World vultures were traditionally placed in a family of their own
in the Falconiformes. However, in the late 20th century some
ornithologists argued that they are more closely related to storks on
the basis of karyotype, morphological, and behavioral data.
Thus some authorities placed them in the
Ciconiiformes with storks and
herons; Sibley and Monroe (1990) even considered them a subfamily of
the storks. This was criticized, and an early DNA sequence
study was based on erroneous data and subsequently
retracted. There was then an attempt to raise the New
World vultures to the rank of an independent order, Cathartiformes not
closely associated with either the birds of prey or the storks and
However, recent multi-locus DNA studies on the evolutionary
relationships between bird groups indicate that New World
vultures are related to the other birds of prey, excluding the
Falconidae which are distantly related to other raptors, and are not
close to storks. In this analysis, the New World vultures should be
part of a new order
Accipitriformes instead, or perhaps as part of
an order (Cathartiformes) closely related to, but distinct from, other
birds of prey (besides falcons). New World vultures are a sister
group to Accipitriformes when the latter is viewed as a group
consisting of Accipitridae, the osprey and secretarybird. Both
groups are basal members of the recently recognized clade
Common and binomial names
South America and north to US
Americas to southern Canada
Lesser yellow-headed vulture
South America and north to Mexico
Greater yellow-headed vulture
Amazon Basin of tropical South America
California, and formerly widespread in the mountains of western North
Southern Mexico to northern Argentina
Extinct species and fossils
The fossil history of the Cathartidae is complex, and many taxa that
may possibly have been New World vultures have at some stage been
treated as early representatives of the family. There is no
unequivocal European record from the Neogene.
Fossil of the extinct
It is clear that the Cathartidae had a much higher diversity in the
Plio-Pleistocene, rivalling the current diversity of Old World
vultures and their relatives in shapes, sizes, and ecological niches.
Extinct taxa are:
Diatropornis ("European vulture") Late Eocene/Early Oligocene
– ?Middle Oligocene of France
Chadronian of Colorado
Cathartidae gen. et sp. indet. Late Oligocene of Mongolia
Brasilogyps Late Oligocene/Early Miocene of Brazil
Hadrogyps ("American dwarf vulture") Middle Miocene of SW North
Cathartidae gen. et sp. indet. Late Miocene/Early Pliocene of Lee
Creek Mine, USA
Pliogyps ("Miocene vulture") Late Miocene – Late Pliocene of S North
Perugyps ("Peruvian vulture") Pisco Late Miocene/Early Pliocene of SC
Dryornis ("Argentinean vulture") Early – Late? Pliocene of
Argentina; may belong to modern genus Vultur
Cathartidae gen. et sp. indet. Middle Pliocene of Argentina
Aizenogyps ("South American vulture") Late Pliocene of SE North
Breagyps ("long-legged vulture") Late Pleistocene of SW North
Geronogyps Late Pleistocene of Argentina and Peru
Gymnogyps varonai Late Quaternary of Cuba 
Wingegyps Late Pleistocene of Brazil
Pleistovultur Late Pleistocene/Early
Holocene of Brazil
Cathartidae gen. et sp. indet. Cuba
The featherless head of the American black vulture,
brasiliensis, reduces bacterial growth from eating carrion.
New World vultures are generally large, ranging in length from the
lesser yellow-headed vulture at 56–61 centimeters
(22–24 inches) up to the California and Andean condors, both of
which can reach 120 centimeters (48 inches) in length and
weigh 12 or more kilograms (26 or more pounds). Plumage is
predominantly black or brown, and is sometimes marked with white. All
species have featherless heads and necks. In some, this skin is
brightly colored, and in the king vulture it is developed into
colorful wattles and outgrowths.
All New World vultures have long, broad wings and a stiff tail,
suitable for soaring. They are the best adapted to soaring of all
land birds. The feet are clawed but weak and not adapted to
grasping. The front toes are long with small webs at their
New World vulture
New World vulture possesses a syrinx, the vocal
organ of birds. Therefore the voice is limited to infrequent grunts
The beak is slightly hooked and is relatively weak compared with those
of other birds of prey. This is because it is adapted to tear the
weak flesh of partially rotted carrion, rather than fresh meat.
The nostrils are oval and are set in a soft cere. The nasal
passage is not divided by a septum (it is "perforate"), so that when
looking from the side, one can see through the beak. The eyes are
prominent, and, unlike those of eagles, hawks, and falcons, they are
not shaded by a brow bone. Members of
a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on
the lower lid, while Gymnogyps, Vultur, and
New World vultures have the unusual habit of urohidrosis, or
defecating on their legs to cool them evaporatively. As this behavior
is also present in storks, it is one of the arguments for a close
relationship between the two groups.
Distribution and habitat
New World vultures are restricted to the western hemisphere. They can
be found from southern Canada to South America. Most species are
mainly resident, but the turkey vulture populations breeding in Canada
and the northern US migrate south in the northern winter. New
World vultures inhabit a large variety of habitats and ecosystems,
ranging from deserts to tropical rainforests and at heights of sea
level to mountain ranges, using their highly adapted sense of
smell to locate carrion. These species of birds are also occasionally
seen in human settlements, perhaps emerging to feed upon the food
sources provided from roadkills.
Behaviour and ecology
New World vultures and condors do not build nests, but lay eggs on
bare surfaces. On average one to three eggs are laid, depending on the
species. Chicks are naked on hatching and later grow down. Like
most birds the parents feed the young by regurgitation. The young
are altricial, fledging in 2 to 3 months.
American black vultures on a horse carcass
All living species of New World vultures and condors are scavengers.
Their diet is overwhelmingly composed of carrion, and they are
commonly seen in carcasses. Other additions to the diet include fruit
(especially rotten fruit) and garbage. An unusual characteristic of
the species in genus
Cathartes is a highly developed sense of smell,
which they use to find carrion. They locate carrion by detecting the
scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the bodies of decaying
animals. The olfactory lobe of the brains in these species, which is
responsible for processing smells, is particularly large compared to
that of other animals. Other species, such as the American black
vulture and the king vulture, have weak senses of smell and find food
only by sight, sometimes by following
Cathartes vultures and other
scavengers. The head and neck of New World vultures are
featherless as an adaptation for hygiene; this lack of feathers
prevents bacteria from the carrion it eats from ruining its feathers
and exposes the skin to the sterilizing effects of the sun.
Tolerance to bacterial toxins in decaying meat
Vultures possess a very acidic digestive system and their gut is
dominated by two species of anaerobic bacteria that help them
withstand toxins they ingest when feeding on decaying prey. In a
2014 study of 50 (turkey and black) vultures, researchers analyzed the
microbial community or microbiome of the facial skin and the large
intestine. The facial bacterial flora and the gut flora overlapped
somewhat, but in general, the facial flora was much more diverse than
the gut flora, which is in contrast to other vertebrates, where the
gut flora is more diverse. Two anaerobic faecal bacteria groups that
are pathogenic in other vertebrates stood out:
Fusobacteria. They were especially common in the gut with Clostridia
DNA sequence counts between 26% and 85% relative to total sequence
Fusobacteria between 0.2% and 54% in black vultures and 2%
to 69% of all counts in turkey vultures. Unexpectedly, both anaerobic
bacteria were also found on the air exposed facial skin samples,
Clostridia at 7%–40% and
Fusobacteria up to 23%. It is assumed that
vultures acquire them when they insert their heads into the body
cavities of rotten meat. The regularly ingested
Fusobacteria outcompete other bacterial groups in the gut and become
predominant. Genes that encode tissue-degrading enzymes and toxins
that are associated with
Clostridium perfringens have been found in
the vulture gut metagenome. This supports the hypothesis that vultures
do benefit from the bacterial breakdown of carrion, while at the same
time tolerating the bacterial toxins.
Status and conservation
California condor is critically endangered. It formerly ranged
from Baja California to British Columbia, but by 1937 was restricted
to California. In 1987, all surviving birds were removed from the
wild into a captive breeding program to ensure the species'
survival. In 2005, there were 127 Californian condors in the wild.
As of October 31, 2009 there were 180 birds in the wild. The
Andean condor is near threatened. The American black vulture,
turkey vulture, lesser yellow-headed vulture, and greater
yellow-headed vulture are listed as species of Least Concern by the
IUCN Red List. This means that populations appear to remain stable,
and they have not reached the threshold of inclusion as a threatened
species, which requires a decline of more than 30 percent in ten years
or three generations. The king vulture is also listed as Least
Concern, although there is evidence of a decline in the
American black vulture
American black vulture and the king vulture appear in a variety of
Maya hieroglyphs in Mayan codices. The king vulture is one of the most
common species of birds represented. Its glyph is easily
distinguishable by the knob on the bird's beak and by the concentric
circles that represent the bird's eyes. It is sometimes portrayed
as a god with a human body and a bird head. According to Mayan
mythology, this god often carried messages between humans and the
other gods. It is also used to represent Cozcaquauhtli, the thirteenth
day of the month in the Mayan calendar. In Mayan codices, the
American black vulture
American black vulture is normally connected with death or shown as a
bird of prey, and its glyph is often depicted attacking humans. This
species lacks the religious connections that the king vulture has.
While some of the glyphs clearly show the American black vulture's
open nostril and hooked beak, some are assumed to be this species
because they are vulture-like and painted black, but lack the king
Old World vultures
Birds of prey
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Vulture videos, photos and sounds on the Internet Bird
Vulture sounds on xeno-canto.org
Vulture photos on beautyofbirds.com
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(New World vultures).
Cathartidae (New World vultures)
Turkey vulture (
Lesser yellow-headed vulture
Lesser yellow-headed vulture (
Greater yellow-headed vulture
Greater yellow-headed vulture (
American black vulture
American black vulture (
King vulture (
California condor (
Andean condor (
Accipitridae: Gypaetinae (eagle-vultures)
Madagascan serpent eagle
Madagascan serpent eagle (Eutriorchis astur)
Palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis)
Madagascan harrier-hawk (
African harrier-hawk (
Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
Accipitridae: Gypinae (Old World vultures)
Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus)
White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis)
Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus)
Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos)
Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)
White-rumped vulture (
Himalayan vulture (
White-backed vulture (
Rüppell's vulture (
Griffon vulture (
Indian vulture (
Slender-billed vulture (
Cape vulture (
Indian vulture crisis
Accipitridae (Buzzards, eagles, harriers, hawks, kites, and Old World