Vultures are Gross-ly Important

Vultures can have wingspans up to six feet!

Photograph by Hedrus, Dreamstime

The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day


Sure, eating dead animals is pretty gross! Even naturalist Charles Darwin described the turkey vulture as a "disgusting bird." But did you know that vultures serve a very important purpose in the ecosystem? By swooping in to remove animal remains, these scavenger birds clean up the environment and help prevent diseases from spreading.


Unfortunately, roughly half the world's 23 vulture species are threatened with extinction. In some parts of the world, vultures have been poisoned by eating dead livestock that had been given medicine that was toxic to the vultures. And in other parts of the world, they have been killed by poachers who don't want the vultures to give away their poaching locations, or killed by feeding on elephants poisoned by the poachers.


Though much of the world's conservation efforts have gone into saving big and cute animals like the polar bear and elephant, vultures need our attention too!

Did You Know?

  • The Rüppell's griffon vulture is believed to be the world's highest-flying bird, with confirmed sightings at more than 35,000 feet (10,668 meters).
  • Turkey vultures have such a good sense of smell that they've helped natural gas companies detect gas leaks. The gas contains the same chemical found in a dead animal, which attracts the vultures to the leak.

So Many Different Vultures!


Vultures are found everywhere in the world, except for Australia and Antarctica. There are 23 vulture species, which are divided into two groups: New World vultures and Old Word vultures. The two groups are only distantly related and actually evolved separately to arrive at a handful of similarities—a biological process known as "convergent evolution." They all have a large wingspan, which allows them to soar with little effort as they search below for a meal. They also all have a sharp beak that hooks to enable them to easily tear apart carrion, the remains of dead animals. Otherwise, as you'll see below, the two groups of vultures are very different!

New World vultures

  • are found in North, South, and Central America

  • all have bald heads

  • lack a voice box, so they can only hiss and grunt

  • lay their eggs in rocky surfaces or tree cavities

  • have weak feet
  • primarily locate food by smell

A few examples ...


King Vulture


Photograph by Nick Biemans, Dreamstime


Turkey Vulture


Photograph by David Spates, Dreamstime


California Condor


Photograph by James Steidl, Dreamstime

Old World vultures

  • are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe

  • aren’t all bald

  • have a voice box

  • build nests to lay their eggs

  • have strong feet with large talons that help them grasp

  • primarily locate food by sight

A few examples ...


Eurasian Griffon


Photograph by Ognjeno, Dreamstime


Egyptian Vulture


Photograph by Lukas Blazek, Dreamstime


Red-headed Vulture


Photograph by Sergey Korotkov, Dreamstime