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Why Do Vultures Have Such a Bad Reputation?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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If you think of a vulture, the classic image is of a large bird ominously circling overhead, ready to descend and gorge itself on a decaying carcass. The name for a group of feeding vultures is sinisterly termed a wake, and the term “vulture” is even used as an insult to describe someone preying on the vulnerable. But why have vultures been vilified, and do they deserve their bad reputation?

Vultures are birds of prey found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. With 23 species, they are divided into two categories: Old World vultures, residing in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and New World vultures, found in North and South America. Vultures scavenge on carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals, which helps explain their stereotype as harbingers of doom. However, the widely held assumption that vultures hover overhead, waiting for their prey to die, is a misconception. Instead, vultures use thermals, pockets of rising warm air that help propel them upwards, and they gain height by flying in circles.

The vulture’s poor image wasn’t helped by the words of distinguished naturalist Charles Darwin, who in 1832 described turkey vultures as “disgusting birds with bald scarlet heads formed to revel in putridity.” Contrary to Darwin’s description, vultures are surprisingly clean birds. And their distinctive bald heads aid in thermoregulation and help prevent their feathers from becoming contaminated with harmful bacteria and parasites while feeding.

Vultures are often referred to as nature’s garbage men. Vultures have very acidic stomachs that can digest harmful pathogens found in decaying carrion, such as tuberculosis, anthrax, and rabies. They are very efficient eaters, cleaning carcasses down to the bone, and bearded vultures go a step further by also consuming the bones! By cleaning up so effectively, vultures play a crucial role in preventing the spread of diseases to waterways and livestock and safeguarding the environment.

Sadly, however, the essential ecological role that vultures play in protecting the environment is not sufficiently appreciated, and many species are endangered. Humans have also contributed to declining vulture populations by putting them at risk from hunting and collisions with overhead power lines and infrastructure. Arguably the biggest threat to vultures is poisoning. In addition to instances of deliberate poisoning, vultures have suffered unintentional harm from painkillers administered to livestock that prove fatal to the birds that consume their carcasses.

More amazing vulture facts:

  • The Andean condor is the world's largest vulture, with a wingspan of almost 11.5 feet (3.5 m) and a maximum weight of 33 pounds (15 kg).

  • When vultures soar together in flight, the collective term is a “kettle.”

  • The Egyptian vulture stands out as the only vulture known to use tools. When feeding, it adeptly picks up stones to crack open ostrich eggs.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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