A bare-headed, keen-sighted bird of prey in any of 22 species found mainly in warm regions. New World vultures (family Cathartidae, related to storks) are 24–31 in. (60–80 cm) long. Old World vultures (family Accipitridae, related to eagles) include the smallest (20 in. [50 cm] long) and the largest vulture species. The cinereous, or black, vulture (Aegypius monachus), one of the largest flying birds, grows to about 40 in. (100 cm) long, weighs almost 30 lb (13 kg), and has a 9-ft (2.7-m) wingspan. Most species eat carrion, garbage, and excrement, but some will occasionally eat a live animal. Seealso condor; marabou; turkey vulture.
Learn more about vulture with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Species (Cathartes aura) of long-winged, long-tailed vulture (family Cathartidae), about 30 in. (75 cm) long, with dark plumage, whitish beak and legs, bare red head covered with whitish bumps, and a 6-ft (1.8-m) wingspread. It uses its keen sense of smell to find carrion. It occurs throughout the Americas except in northern Canada; the northerly and southernmost populations are migratory.
Learn more about turkey vulture with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A group of vultures is occasionally called a venue, and when circling in the air a group of vultures is called a kettle. The word Geier (taken from the German language) does not have a precise meaning in ornithology, and it is occasionally used to refer to a vulture in English, as in some poetry.
Vultures seldom attack healthy animals, but may kill the wounded or sick. Vast numbers have been seen upon battlefields. They gorge themselves when prey is abundant, till their crop bulges, and sit, sleepy or half torpid, to digest their food. They do not carry food to their young in their claws, but disgorge it from the crop. These birds are of great value as scavengers, especially in hot regions. Botulinum toxin, the toxin that causes botulism, does not affect them, and they can eat rotten flesh containing anthrax and cholera bacteria. When a vulture's dinner has too thick of hide for his beak to open, he waits for a larger scavenger to eat first.
The decline in vultures has led to hygiene problems in India as carcasses of dead animals now tend to rot, or be eaten by rats or wild dogs, rather than be tidied up by vultures. Rabies among these other scavengers is a major health threat. India has one of the world's highest incidences of rabies.
The decline in vultures causes particular problems for certain communities, such as the Parsi, who practice sky burials, where the human dead are put on the top of Towers of Silence and are eaten by vultures, leaving only dry bones.
Meloxicam (another NSAID) has been found to be harmless to vultures and should prove an acceptable alternative to diclofenac. The Government of India banned diclofenac, but over a year later, in 2007, it continued to be sold and is still a problem in other parts of the world.
The Egyptians considered the vulture to be an excellent mother, and the wide wingspan was seen as all-encompassing and providing a protective cover to her infants. The white Egyptian vulture was the animal picked to represent Nekhbet, the mother goddess and protective patron of southern, Upper Egypt. The vulture hieroglyph
In the Hindu epic Ramayana, there appear two demi-gods who had the form of vultures, Jatayu (Sanskrit: जटायू, jatāyū) and his brother Sampaati, with whom are associated stories of courage and self-sacrifice.
When young, the two used to compete as to who could fly higher. On one such instance Jatayu flew so high that he was about to get seared by sun's flames. Sampaati saved his brother by spreading his own wings and thus shielding Jatayu from the hot flames. In the process, Sampaati himself got injured and lost his wings. As a result Sampaati lived wingless for the rest of his life.
When Jatayu was old, he witnessed the beatiful Sita, wife of the god Rama, being kidnapped by the rapacious Ravana. Jatayu tried to save her but was defeated and mortally wounded. When he lay dying he was still able to tell Rama and his brother Lakshmana in which direction Sita was being taken, facilitating her eventual rescue.