vulture, common name for large birds of prey of temperate and tropical regions. The Old World vultures (family Accipitridae) are allied to hawks and eagles; the more ancient American vultures and condors are of a different family (Cathartidae) with distant links to storks and cormorants.
American vultures have no syrinx and are thus voiceless, emitting weak hisses. They feed voraciously and indiscriminately, chiefly on carrion. Because they have weak beaks and lack the strength of other birds of prey, they rarely attack other than helpless animals. Most vultures have dark plumage and small, naked heads. In the adult turkey vulture, or turkey buzzard, Cathartes aura (wingspread 6 ft/1.9 m), the head is red; in the smaller black vulture it is black; and in the tropical king vulture (with cream and black plumage) it is orange, crimson, and purple, with a neck ruff of gray down.
Vultures have keen sight and are effortless soarers, skillful at riding the thermal updrafts of their mountain habitats. They are normally solitary but will gather in crowds to feed. As valuable scavengers they are protected by law. A vulture of the Pleistocene epoch was the largest bird that ever existed, with a wingspread of 16 to 17 ft (4.9–5.1 m).
Vultures are frequently called buzzards, although the name is more correctly applied to hawks of the genus Buteo. Vultures are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Falconiformes, families Cathartidae and Accipitridae.
See study by T. van Dooren (2011).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.