Vultures are often underappreciated misunderstood birds. While there may be only 23 vulture species in the world, depending on how individual species are split or lumped by different organizations, each one of them fills a vital ecological niche. All of these birds help clean up the environment by eating carrion, which prevents the spread of diseases from old, rotting carcasses. Those diseases could affect other birds and wildlife, including humans, and could impact soil and waterways as well, contaminating crops and water sources with dangerous bacteria and infections.
Unfortunately, 14 of the vulture and condor species in the world, more than half of the total vulture bird species, are considered threatened or endangered, some of them with significant population losses in recent years. Because of a range of different threats, including poisoning, vehicle collisions, and electrocution, these vulture populations will continue to decline without urgent help. Learning more about these unique birds is the first step toward effective conservation, and the first thing to learn is the different types of vultures and their common and scientific names. How many different vulture bird species do you know?
There are two general classifications of vultures: Old World vultures and New World vultures. While both types share striking characteristics and occupy the same environmental niche as "nature's clean-up crew" there are actually significant geographic and evolutionary distinctions between them.
- New world vultures: These vultures are found only in the New World of North and South America, from Canada to Argentina as well as in the Caribbean. They belong to the scientific family Cathartidae and include seven species of vultures and condors. These birds are most closely related to storks and herons rather than other true raptors, though they are often discussed as birds of prey because of their carnivorous diets. New World vultures typically have an excellent sense of smell, though the degree they use their sense of smell varies among the different species.
- Old world vultures: These vultures are found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa and belong to the Accipitridae bird family. They lack a strong sense of smell but still have an acute vision to locate food sources by sight. These vultures are most closely related to other raptor species in their scientific family, including eagles, kites, harriers, buzzards, and hawks. Like their New World cousins, these birds are also carnivorous. A total of 16 vulture species are considered Old World species, though future splits or lumps between similar species could change that total.
Both New World and Old World vultures look similar with their bald or nearly bald heads, heavy bodies, broad wings, and hooked bills. The two distinct groups also act similarly when they scavenge on carcasses and carrion, often gathering in large groups at suitable food sources. Most vultures around the world even prefer similar tropical and subtropical habitats with relatively open vegetation. Ornithologists have investigated the different species from both vulture groups through genetic testing and analysis, however, and now believe those similarities are due to convergent evolution. Both groups of birds evolved independently and are not closely related in genetic or biological terms. Instead, they developed their close similarities because of similar environmental needs during the eons of their evolutionary process. Nevertheless, the threats facing these birds are the same worldwide, and they all need our help so they can continue to keep the environment clean.
Alphabetical Species List
* - Considered threatened or vulnerable due to population decreases and growing survival threats
** - Listed as endangered and in critical danger of extinction if conservation is not implemented (Classifications by BirdLife International)
Note: New World vultures are denoted by NW—all other species belong to the Old World vultures classification.
- *Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), NW
- Black vulture (Coragyps atratus), NW
- **California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), NW
- *Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres)
- *Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus)
- **Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
- Greater yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes melambrotus), NW
- Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus)
- Himalayan vulture (Gyps himalayensis)
- **Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)
- **Indian vulture (Gyps indicus)
- King vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), NW
- Lammergeier (bearded vulture) (Gypaetus barbatus)
- *Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotus)
- Lesser yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes burrovianus), NW
- Palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis)
- **Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus)
- **Rüppell's vulture (Gyps rueppelli)
- **Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)
- Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), NW
- **White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)
- *White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis)
- **White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis)