By its simplest definition: a vulture is a bird of prey that feeds on carrion (meat of dead animals). Hollywood has used the vulture’s peculiar profile as an effective villain in old animated movies, and they are generally not considered a desirable animal, much like a crow or raven. However, their unique characteristics and massive size set them apart from nearly all other birds of prey. In fact, the largest vulture species are bigger than all eagles, hawks, and falcons! Let’s take a look at these massive birds by counting down the top ten largest vultures alive today.
10. White-backed Vulture (Gyps Africanus)
- Body Length: 78-98 cm (up to 3 ft. 2.5 inches.)
- Wingspan: 1.96-2.25 m (up to 7 ft. 4.5 inches.)
- Weight: 9.3-15.9 lbs.
The white-backed vulture is an old-world vulture, so named because its habitat does not extend into the “new world,” or the western hemisphere explored and colonized by Europeans. This large bird is native to Africa and breeds in the savannah, laying typically only one egg per year. Like most vultures, the white-backed prefers carrion. True to its name, the white-backed vulture has white feathers along its back.
Once considered relatively stable, the population of these vultures has dropped severely over the past few decades. The main culprit appears to be poison, though habitat loss is another contributing factor. In a bid to protect their crops and livestock, farmers have misused poisons, like Furadan, to kill predators. When the predators die, the vultures come to eat the carrion and ingest the poison as well. Currently, the white-backed vulture is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.
9. Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus)
- Body Length: Up to 3 ft. 4.4 inches (81-103 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 7 ft. 4.5 inches (1.96-2.25 m)
- Weight: 12-14 lbs.
Native to Nepal, India, and Pakistan, this old-world vulture has also experienced rapid population decline due to the accidental ingestion of poisons. The IUCN lists them as critically endangered, and captive breeding programs have been started to stop the decline of the species. Since vultures feast on dead animals, when their population declines, feral dog and rat populations increase, along with the risk for diseases. Their impact on stabilizing the local ecosystem is substantial.
Like most vultures, the head and neck of the Indian vulture are bald and featherless, which allows them to stick their faces into their meals and choose the best bites. The Indian vulture mostly breeds along cliffs in south-central India, though it has been known to nest in trees on occasion. An adult Indian vulture’s body is covered in pale feathers; its wings consist of darker feathers.
8. Rüppells Vulture (Gyps rueppelli)
- Body Length: Up to 3 ft. 4.4 inches (85-103 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 8 ft. 6 inches (2.26-2.6 m)
- Weight: 14-20 lbs.
Named after the German naturalist and explorer, this large bird is native mainly to the Sahel region of Africa, between the savanna and the desert. Despite not being the largest vulture, the Rüppell is the highest flying. Evidence confirmed that they can fly at an altitude of up to 37,000 feet above sea level, that’s taller than Mt. Everest!
Rüppells vulture has a dark brown or black overall color coat, with a whiter underbelly and some white fluff near the head and neck. They also have a special protein that allows them to efficiently take in oxygen at extreme elevations. Like the previous two entries, Rüppells vultures are critically endangered according to the IUCN and have suffered great losses via accidental poison ingestion. To help them digest animal hides and bones, the Rüppell has a backward-facing tongue with spikes on it.
7. Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres)
- Body Length: Up to 3 ft. 9 inches (96-115 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 8 ft. 6 inches (2.26-2.6 m)
- Weight: 15-24 lbs.
The Cape vulture, another African native, makes its home in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Angola, and some parts of Namibia. This large bird prefers to nest along cliffs near mountains and, like many other vultures, only lays one egg per year. It is considered endangered by the IUCN, having held the distinction since 2015.
The Cape vulture is one of the largest birds of prey in Africa and has two bare skin patches at the base of the neck. Scientists think these patches are used to detect thermals in the air. An adult has a pale body coat and dark feathers on the wings and tail. On average, the Cape vulture is the third largest “old-world” vulture in the wild.
6. Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
- Body Length: Up to 4 ft. 1 inch (94-125 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 9 ft. 3 inches (2.31-2.83 m)
- Weight: 9.9-17.2 lbs.
The bearded vulture is the largest raptor in the Alps of Europe and is a particularly colorful variety. Adults either have a reddish-yellow or white plumage on the head and chest with grey/black tails and wing feathers. The IUCN lists them as near-threatened due to a steadily declining population; as recently as 2004, the bird was listed as least concern.
Not only is the bearded vulture identifiable by its striking colors, it is also the only known vulture to have a diet consisting primarily of bone marrow. Due to a highly specialized digestive system, the bearded vulture can swallow and break down bones up to femur size. For bones that are too large to swallow, the vulture will carry it to a high altitude and then drop the bone to crack it. Unlike many other vulture species, the bearded vulture does not have a bald head. The habitat range of these non-migratory raptors is large, and they can be found in southern Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Caucasus region, and Tibet.
5. Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)
- Body Length: Up to 4 ft. (93-122 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 9 ft. 1 inch (2.3-2.8 m)
- Weight: 14-23 lbs.
The griffon vulture is a large bird similar in size to the bearded vulture, although some extreme examples put the maximum weight of the species at nearly 30 lbs., which is substantially heavier than the bearded. Unlike the bearded vulture, it is common to see griffon vultures flying in groups. They are typical scavengers of carrion and can live for up to four decades.
The IUCN currently lists the species as least concern. They can be found in a variety of old-world locations, including parts of Europe, North Africa, East Africa, Yemen, Israel, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Like many vultures, the griffon nests in crags of rock and lays one egg per year.
4. Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos)
- Body Length: Up to 3 ft. 9 inches (95-115 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 9 ft. 6 inches (2.5-2.9 m)
- Weight: 23-30 lbs.
The Lappet-faced vulture or Nubian vulture is a massive old-world raptor that prefers undisturbed open environments like savannahs. It has a bald head with reddish-pink skin color, black feathers (brown for the Arabian Peninsula sub-species), and white feathers along the chest. The vulture has a patchy native range in parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. While generally solitary, large groups of more than 20 will appear at the sites with abundant carrion.
Unfortunately, the number of Lappet-faced vultures is declining throughout its range, although it appears to be more stable in the Arabian Peninsula. There are reportedly 9,000 birds remaining in the wild. As is the case with many misunderstood creatures, vultures suffer from habitat loss, poison ingestion from farming chemicals, and direct hunting. The IUCN lists the species as vulnerable.
3. Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)
- Body Length: Up to 3 ft. 11 inches (~1.2 m)
- Wingspan: Up to 10 ft. 2 inches (~3.1 m)
- Weight: ~31 lbs.
Coming in at number three on our list, the cinereous vulture is the largest old-world vulture. This large bird of prey is a Eurasian variety with a breeding area in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, northern Afghanistan, and extreme western China. The western limit of the vulture’s natural breeding range is in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain & Portugal), with a reintroduced population in southern France. The habitat in southern Europe is disconnected from the rest of the range in central Asia. The IUCN lists the cinereous as near-threatened.
Unlike the colorful lappet-faced vulture, the cinereous is largely dark in appearance with dark brown plumage and a pale, featherless head. Like all vultures, the cinereous is a scavenger that prefers carrion. As far as habitat is concerned, the cinereous prefers open, mountainous terrain, including high elevation meadows, the central Asian steppe, and riparian areas. Like the Rüppells vultures (number 8 on our list), the cinereous has a special protein allowing it to fly in thin oxygen environments and has been recorded at elevations over 22,000 feet on the slopes of Mt. Everest.
2. California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)
- Body Length: Up to 4 ft. 7 inches (109-140 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 9 ft. 10 inches (2.49-3 m)
- Weight: 15-31 lbs.
Number two on our list, and the largest bird of prey in North America, the California condor is an impressively large raptor. The history of the California condor is rather tragic, with only 27 individuals left in the wild by 1987. Subsequent conservation efforts captured all 27, and gradually, the condor began repopulating in captivity. After releasing the condors back into the wild, habitat creation occurred in south-central California, Baja California, Northern Arizona, and southern Utah. There are an estimated 518 California condors left on earth (captive and wild). The IUCN lists the California condor as critically endangered.
The California condor is largely black, with the exception of a white triangle of feathers on the underside of each wing. With a wingspan hovering near ten feet, the condor has been mistaken for an airplane at distance. Like the Andean Condor, the featherless head can change colors depending on the condor’s mood; the coloration difference serves as a type of communication between birds.
1. Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
- Body Length: Up to 4 ft. 3 inches (100-130 cm)
- Wingspan: Up to 10 ft. 10 inches (3.3 m)
- Weight: 22-33 lbs.
Not only is the Andean condor the largest vulture on earth, it’s also the largest bird of prey period and one of the largest flying birds in existence. Part of the new-world vulture group, this enormous raptor makes its home along the spine of the Andes mountain range in South America, with smaller isolated habitat ranges in northern Colombia and extreme western Venezuela. The IUCN currently lists the bird as vulnerable.
A carrion specialist, the Andean Condor nests in inaccessible rocky crags and lays 1-2 eggs per year. It is one of the longest living birds on earth, with individuals reportedly living up to 70 years. The Andean condor is a black-feathered bird with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of the neck. The males are generally larger than the females, which is unique amongst birds of prey. Like most vultures, the head and neck are featherless and appear dull red in color. The color can actually change shades depending on the vulture’s mood. Males also have a wattle under their beak and a comb (similar to what roosters have) atop their heads.
While the two largest vultures on this list are commonly called condors, they do belong to the vulture group. The word Condor comes from the native Quechua word kuntur. The Quechua are Native Americans who can trace their common language all the way back to the Incan Empire and live in the Peruvian Andes. They were likely one of the first people to observe the Andean condor.