Cathartidae – New World Vultures

Andean Condor Vultur gryphus ©Dr Jorge Cruz Website

The Cathartidae or New World vultures are a family that 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.

They do not form a monophyletic clade with the superficially similar family of Old World vultures, but similarities between the two groups are due to convergent evolution. Many now consider them to be in their own order Cathartiformes, closely related to, but distinct from, Accipitriformes the Old World vultures and allies.

These 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.

New World vultures are generally large, ranging in length from the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture at 56–61 centimetres up to the California Condor and Andean Condor, both of which can reach 120 centimetres in length and weigh 12 or more kilograms. 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 coloured, and in the King Vulture it is developed into colourful wattles and outgrowths.

They all have long, broad wings and a stiff tail, suitable for soaring and 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 bases. No New World vulture possesses a syrinx, the vocal organ of birds. Therefore the voice is limited to infrequent grunts and hisses.

Their beaks are slightly hooked and 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 Coragyps and Cathartes have a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid, while Gymnogyps, Vultur, and Sarcoramphus lack eyelashes altogether.

New World vultures have the unusual habit of urohidrosis, or defecating on their legs to cool them evaporatively. As this behaviour is also present in storks, it is one of the arguments for a close relationship between the two groups.

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.

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 many birds the parents feed the young by regurgitation. The young are altricial, fledging in 2 to 3 months.

According to the IOC there are just 7 species of new World Vulture in the family Cathartidae; which are:

Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus
Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

Species Links
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    BirdLife Species Account
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    IUCN Species Status
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    Species Account
    The black vulture (Coragyps atratus) also known as the American black vulture, is a bird in the New World vulture family whose range extends from the southeastern United States to Central Chile and Uruguay in South America.
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    Cornell Species Account
    With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky birds with teetering flight, Black Vultures are compact birds with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats.
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Vultur atratus Bechstein, 1793, St John’s River, Florida, USA. Affinities unclear. In recent study, karyotype found to be similar to that of Sarcoramphus. Geographical variation over wide range largely clinal, and also much individual variation; species may be better considered monotypic. Three subspecies currently recognized.
  • Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

    Cornell Species Account
    Perhaps the bird that is the most evocative representative of the Andes, the Andean Condor embodies the enormous distances and heights of the longest mountain range in the world.
  • Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

    Species Account
    The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is a South American bird in the New World vulture family Cathartidae and is the only member of the genus Vultur. Found in the Andes mountains and adjacent Pacific coasts of western South America, the Andean condor is the largest flying bird in the world by combined measurement of weight and wingspan.
  • Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

    IUCN Species Status
  • Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Vultur gryphus Linnaeus, 1758, Chile. Monotypic.
  • Andean Condor Vultur gryphus

    BirdLife Species Account
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    BirdLife Species Account
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Vultur californianus Shaw, 1797, Monterey, California, USA. In the past placed in genus Pseudogryphus. Monotypic.
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    IUCN Species Status
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    Species Account
    The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor became extinct in the wild in 1987 (all remaining wild individuals were captured), but the species has been reintroduced to northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park), the coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California.
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    Cornell Species Account
    The spectacular but endangered California Condor is the largest bird in North America. These superb gliders travel widely to feed on carcasses of deer, pigs, cattle, sea lions, whales, and other animals.
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

    Cornell Species Account
    Due to confusion with the smaller Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus), the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture was not described as a species until 1964; the two yellow-headed vultures differ in size, and in subtle differences in the coloration of the head and in the color pattern on the underside of the wing.
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

    Species Account
    The greater yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes melambrotus), also known as the forest vulture,[2] is a species of bird in the New World vulture family Cathartidae. It was considered to be the same species as the lesser yellow-headed vulture until they were split in 1964.
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

    IUCN Species Status
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Cathartes melambrotus Wetmore, 1964, Kartabo, Guyana. Thought to be closely related to C. burrovianus; the two are widely sympatric. Monotypic.
  • Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotus

    BirdLife Species Account
  • King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

    BirdLife Species Account
  • King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

    HBW Species Account
  • King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

    Species Account
    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.
  • King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

    Cornell Species Account
    King Vulture is a large, striking bird of undisturbed lowland forests, from southern Mexico south to northern Argentina. The body of the adult is largely white, with contrasting black remiges and a blackish neck ruff.
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus

    Cornell Species Account
    Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture closely resembles Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melambrotus), and overlaps with that species in northern South America. Both species are largely black with yellowish heads. Lesser occurs from eastern Mexico south through Central America, and patchily in South America east of the Andes and south to Uruguay.
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus

    Species Account
    The lesser yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) also known as the savannah vulture,[2] is a species of bird in the New World vulture family Cathartidae. It was considered to be the same species as the greater yellow-headed vulture until they were split in 1964.
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus

    IUCN Species Status
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Cathartes burrovianus Cassin, 1845, near Veracruz City, Mexico. Formerly called C. urubitinga or C. urubutinga. Thought to be closely related to C. melambrotus; the two are widely sympatric. Two subspecies generally recognized.
  • Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus

    BirdLife Species Account
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    Cornell Species Account
    Full species account with images, distribution maps and etc…
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    BirdLife Species Account
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Vultur aura Linnaeus, 1758, Veracruz, Mexico.Some forms currently considered races of present species may prove to merit treatment as full species, e.g. has been suggested that resident ruficollis and S race jota (including “falklandicus”) possibly separate species from mostly migratory N nominate and septentrionalis. N populations of nominate race sometimes separated as meridionalis, and lowland populations from S coastal Ecuador to Chile and Falkland Is as falklandicus, but variation seems to be generally clinal. Further study required. Four subspecies usually recognized.
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    Species Account
    The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), also known in some North American regions as the turkey buzzard (or just buzzard), and in some areas of the Caribbean as the John crow or carrion crow,[2] is the most widespread of the New World vultures.[3] One of three species in the genus Cathartes of the family Cathartidae, the turkey vulture ranges from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America.
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    Cornell Species Account
    If you’ve gone looking for raptors on a clear day, your heart has probably leaped at the sight of a large, soaring bird in the distance– perhaps an eagle or osprey.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 7

Useful Reading
  • Condor - To the Brink and Back - The Life and Times of One Giant Bird

    by John Nielsen Harper Collins 2006 ISBN: 0060088621 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Organisations
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    Website
    Re-introduction programme with images, essays etc
Other Links
  • Condor Americano

    Website
    The history of the Condor in Argentina…
Photographers & Artists
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    Gallery
    Good image
  • American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

    Gallery
    Brilliant image of head…
  • California Condor Gymnogyps californianus

    Gallery
    In flight image…
  • Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

    Gallery
    Excellent [flight] image…

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