Sarcoramphus papa -National Zoo -Washington -USA-8a

A King Vultures at Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington DC, USA.

The king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) is a large bird found in Central and South America. It is a member of the New World vulture family Cathartidae. This vulture lives predominantly in tropical lowland forests stretching from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. It is the only surviving member of the genus Sarcoramphus, although fossil members are known. Like other vultures, the king vulture is a scavenger. These large birds glide on air currents, conserving energy while searching the forests or savanna below for the corpses of dead animals. Because of their unappetizing eating habits, they fill an ecological niche, and may help to prevent the spread of disease by disposing of rotting remains.

Distribution and Habitat Edit

The king vulture inhabits an estimated 14 million square kilometres (5,400,000 sq mi) between southern Mexico and northern Argentina. In South America, it does not live west of the Andes, except in western Ecuador, north-western Colombia and far north-western Venezuela. It primarily inhabits undisturbed tropical lowland forests as well as savannas and grasslands with these forests nearby. It is often seen near swamps or marshy places in the forests. This bird is often the most numerous or only vulture present in primary lowland forests in its range, but in the Amazon rainforest it is typically outnumbered by the Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture, while typically outnumbered by the  Lesser Yellow-Headed Vultureturkey and American Black Vulture in more open habitats. King vultures generally do not live above 1,500 m (5,000 ft), although are found in places at 2,500 m (8,000 ft) altitude east of the Andes, and have been rarely recorded up to 3,300 m (11,000 ft) They inhabit the emergent forest level, or above the canopy. Pleistocene remains have been recovered from Buenos Aires Province in central Argentina, over 700 km (450 miles) south of its current range, giving rise to speculation on the habitat there at the time which had not been thought to be suitable.

Ecology and Behavior Edit

The king vulture soars for hours effortlessly, only flapping its wings infrequently. While in flight, its wings are held flat with slightly raised tips, and from a distance the vulture can appear to be headless while in flight. Its wing beats are deep and strong. Birds have been observed engaging in tandem flight on two occasions in Venezuela by naturalist Marsha Schlee, who has proposed it could be a part of courtship behavior.

Despite its size and gaudy coloration, this vulture is quite inconspicuous when it is perched in trees. While perched, it holds its head lowered and thrust forward. It is non-migratory and, unlike the turkey, lesser yellow-headed and American black vulture, it generally lives alone or in small family groups. Groups of up to 12 birds have been observed bathing and drinking in a pool above a waterfall in Belize. One or two birds generally descend to feed at a carcass, although occasionally up to ten or so may gather if there is significant amount of food. King vultures have lived up to 30 years in captivity, though their lifespan in the wild is unknown. This vulture uses urohidrosis, defecating on its legs, to lower its body temperature. Despite its bill and large size, it is relatively unaggressive at a kill. The king vulture lacks a voice box, although it can make low croaking noises and wheezing sounds in courtship, and bill-snapping noises when threatened. Its only natural predators are snakes, which will prey upon the vulture's eggs and young, and large cats such as jaguars, which may surprise and kill an adult vulture at a carcass.

Colorful Appearance Edit

King vultures have a very colorful look that distinguishes them from their vulture relatives. They are predominately white, with black tails and wing tips. They have piercing, often straw-colored eyes and multicolored (yellow, orange, and red) heads and necks. Though brightly colored, the vulture's head and neck are bald. This may help the fastidious birds to stay clean, and ensure that bacteria-laden animal remains don't fester in the bird's plumage where they could spread disease.

Scavenging Edit

Sarcoramphus papa are among the bird world's largest scavengers and have powerful, hooked beaks that are excellently adapted for tearing open tough carcasses. They can often access meals that other vultures cannot, and smaller birds usually give way when they arrive to feed. These birds nest on the ground, and females lay a single egg—which both parents incubate. Both parents may also care for infants, bringing back dinner in their stomachs and regurgitating it for their young to enjoy.

Folklore Edit

King vultures are found from Mexico south to Argentina. Some suggest that the bird's name stems from an old Mayan legend in which this vulture was a “king” or “lord” that carried messages between humans and the Gods.

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