The king vulture, ruler of scavengers, mythical Mayan creature

Soaring for hours in the Central and South American skies, focused on searching for carcasses of dead animals almost without flapping its wings, this bird of prey is the largest of the New World vultures. The king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), the largest surviving member of its genus, lives in the savannas, tropical lowland forests, and grasslands of the 5.4-million-square-mile territory that stretches from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.

Some say that the scavenger gets the “king” part of its name from its role in the Mayan folklore, according to which it served as a messenger between humans and gods. Others think it was simply the more powerful vulture, displacing the smaller vultures, who would have to wait until the king has finished feasting on a carcass.

The king vulture has a multi-colored head and neck that can be blue, yellow, orange, purple or red, and an orange caruncle – similar to a rooster’s wattle – on its razor-sharp beak. The bird, the overall length of which is 26-32 inches with a wingspan of 4-7 feet, has predominantly white plumage – and is referred to as the “white crow” by some cultures. However, for such a terror-inducing animal, it is rather quiet: outside a few simple sounds, this bird of prey is mostly silent as it lacks a syrinx, the organ needed to make noises.

It feeds on anything from cattle to dead fish, and most of the vulture’s diet is carrion, the decaying animal flesh, an essential part of the ecosystem that helps prevent the spread of disease by cleaning up animal remains. Other carrion eaters include hyenas, maggots, coyotes and condors. The king vulture’s sharp beak usually makes the initial cut and feeds first – unless there’s an Andean condor in the picture. The head and neck of the king vulture are featherless to prevent the transfer of bacteria from decaying flesh to the feathers of this carnivore. The sun sterilizes the bacteria that lingers on the head and neck.

King vultures make a frequent appearance in ancient books – called the Maya codices -- written in hieroglyphic script during the pre-Columbian civilization, written on huun paper made out of fig tree bark. The depiction of the bird also appears on the eastern façade of the Monjas at Chichen Itza, for example. In the codices, the king vultures are easily recognizable by the caruncle on its beak and the concentric eye circles. Often, the glyph portrays the vulture as a creature with the head of a bird and the body of a human – in the Dresden codex, perhaps the most famous of the codices, this supernatural creature is shown cohabitating with a woman, and later with a dog. It is possible that the vulture represented the 13th day of the month in the Aztec calendar, Cib, which corresponds to Cozcacuauhtli in Nahuatl, which in turn means “vulture.” According to some sources, the Maya also believed that if the shadow of a king vulture passed over a person, they were to suffer a misfortune – or even die.

As other bird, reptilian and mammal species in Latin America the king vultures are facing loss of habitat as forests disappear. They are also subject to poaching. The IUCN doesn’t currently list them as endangered, but that could – and likely will – change in the near future, if deforestation continues at the current rate.

Did you know?

  • Papyrus may be the more famous paper, but Mayan scrolls were much more durable. Unfortunately, most were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic church.

  • The king vulture is not entirely invincible: snakes may attack the vulture’s eggs and the young birds, and wildcats may prey on an adult vulture that’s busy devouring a carcass.

  • It is unknown how long king vultures live in the wild: in captivity, they seem to live around 30 years, although one zoo-residing bird seems to have made it to 47.

  • To add to this scavenger’s mysticism, the vulture’s feathers – and even its blood – were once thought to cure diseases.

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