What distinguishes the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) from other members of the New World vulture family is its dramatic coloration. While their bodies and wings are predominantly white, with a black neck ruff, black wingtips and black tails, their faces and necks are arrestingly bright.
The king vulture can grow up to 32 inches (82 centimeters) in height and have a wingspan of around 5.5 feet (1.67 meters). In common with other vultures, their head and neck are bald; however, it is the extraordinary coloration of this part of the king vulture’s anatomy which inspired its regal name. The skin of the king vulture’s head is dominated by purple and red tones, while the neck is remarkable for its bright orange and yellow colors. In mature adults, the bill is crowned by an irregular golden crest, known as a caruncle. The black pupil and white iris of the king vulture’s eyes are encircled by a red border, known as the sclera.
The king vulture inhabits undisturbed tropical lowland rainforests, from southern Mexico, through Central and South America, as far as the forests of northern Argentina. It is often sighted at wetland locations within the rainforest.
King vultures occupy the highest branches of the big trees that emerge from the rainforest canopy. They tend to perch at these elevated locations in order to benefit from the commanding view offered of the forest far below them.
While they do not possess the acute sense of smell common to other species of vulture, king vultures do have excellent eyesight, which they employ to spot other carrion eaters. Once they have been alerted in this way to the presence of carrion in the forest, they swoop down and scatter the other birds at the feeding site.
With its great size and powerful bill adapted for the task of tearing open carcasses, the king vulture tends to dominate carrion sites, usually causing the other birds that first alerted it to the existence of a dead animal to give way, without having to engage in overtly aggressive behavior.
Among the vultures of the New World, only the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is larger than the king vulture. Because the king vulture does not tend to venture beyond altitudes of around 1500 meters, these two enormous carnivorous birds do not compete directly for food sources; however, within the rainforests of the Amazon, the king vulture can find itself outnumbered at times by the greater yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes melambrotus).
King vultures nest on the ground or in tree stumps, with the female laying a single egg and both parents sharing in the task of incubating the egg and rearing the chick by regurgitating the food they have scavenged.
It is at the egg stage when king vultures are vulnerable to their only real predator: snakes are known to raid king vulture nests in search of their eggs. Another potential danger for king vultures is the possibility that they may be overcome by a lurking jaguar when engaged in feeding from a carcass.
While king vultures take off with heavy wingbeats, once they are in the air they display the same effortlessness as other members of the vulture family, soaring to great heights on thermal updrafts and only flapping their wings occasionally.