CathartidaeNew World vultures and condors


Cathartidae is a family consisting of five extant genera and seven extant species of New World vultures. One of the genera within Cathartidae, Cathartes contains three species (C. aura, C. burrovianus, and C. melambrotus), while each of the other four genera consists of only one extant species. Cathartidae are widespread across the new world and all feed on carrion (animal carcasses). All extant Cathartids have unfeathered heads to stay clean while feeding on carrion, and all members have wide wingspans that allow them to soar in search of food. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) are two notable members of this family, as they have remarkable olfactory ability and the largest wingspan of any non-seabird, respectively. (Wallace, 2003)

Geographic Range

Cathartids can be found throughout the southern half of the Nearctic Region and through the entirety of the Neotropical Region. They are widespread across this range, though the northern populations do migrate south in the winter. As they are carrion eaters, they do not require specialized habitat types; however, they require roosting areas that limit their areas of distribution. (Wallace, 2003)


Cathartids use thermal air currents to rise and soar vast distances to forage, often encountering many habitat types along the way. As carrion specialists, Cathartids can exist in almost any habitat where carrion is present. They vary in roosting area requirements, with some members such as Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures exploiting a wide variety of roosts (including man-made structures such as power poles), and other, larger members, such as Andean Condors, requiring very specific roosting conditions (cliff roosts with specific climatic variables). Most Cathartids forage for carrion based on sight, but members of the genus Cathartes have a keen sense of smell which allows them to locate carrion that is obscured by foliage or other obstacles. (Wallace, 2003)

Systematic and Taxonomic History

Cathartidae is classified within the order Ciconiiformes, which also contains herons, storks, spoonbills, and ibises. This reflects a recent shift in phylogenetic understanding based on genetic evidence, which has shown that similarities between cathartids and old world vultures within the family Accipitiridae are the result of convergent evolution. Cytochrome b has been used as a gene of interest, as well as more recent whole-genome analyses, to understand these relationships better. The family name Cathartidae does not have any taxonomic synonyms. (Avise, et al., 1994; Chung, et al., 2015; Niemann, 2004; Wallace, 2003)

Physical Description

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike


Cathartids reach sexual maturity around five or six years old, then mate monogamously (with many species mating for life with one individual). Mating displays are common in birds finding first-year mates and vary between species. In some groups, such as Andean Condors, birds may fight for territories during the breeding season. (Holste, et al., 2014; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

Cathartids lay a clutch of eggs once per year (though condors lay eggs less frequently than vultures) in the breeding season, which varies based on latitude. They usually lay around 1-3 eggs per clutch and both the male and female watch over the eggs and care for hatchlings. Depending on the species, parents can provide anywhere from almost no assistance to young once they have fledged (as in Cathartes) or for up to two years after the young hatch. Hatchlings are mostly helpless and parents spend a large amount of time guarding the nest. Some defensive behaviors employed by parents to protect their young are hissing, projectile vomiting, and playing dead. (Holste, et al., 2014; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

Within Cathartidae, both parents invest a large amount of time and resources into their offspring, with both males and females defending the nest and providing food for the young. Parental investment varies between species, with vultures caring for their young for less than a year and condors providing extended care for their young, ceasing only when a new clutch of eggs is laid. Most of the parental investment occurs after fertilization has occurred, without much before. Birds in this order do not build elaborate nests but rather find and defend roosts in which to raise chicks. (Holste, et al., 2014; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning


The longevity of Cathartidae species is not well understood. Generally, members seem to be long-lived birds which can potentially live as long as seventy years in captivity. Lifespans in the wild are not well studied, especially because many members of Cathartidae die prematurely as a result of lead toxicity. As with many birds, survivorship in Cathartidae is lowest while the birds are developing into full adults. If individuals make it past this critical stage of four to eight years old they are likely to live long lives as adults. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Kirk and Mossman, 1998)


Cathartidae species have a wide variety of behaviors. While some of the vultures (Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures) will inhabit large communal roosts, some (such as the Yellow-headed Vultures, King Vultures, and both condors) are generally solitary or are found with only a few other individuals. There are dominance hierarchies that may be determined by age or appearances (such as brilliance of head color in Turkey Vultures) that affect roosting and foraging behaviors. Members of Cathartidae do not usually migrate and will soar in areas surrounding their roost or nest to forage but will return to roosts to sleep. Pair bonding is common in this group and is often life-long or until one mate dies. Most members of Cathartidae engage in sunning behaviors wherein the wings are spread and exposed to sunlight for several minutes at a time. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Kirk and Mossman, 1998; Wallace, 2003)

Communication and Perception

Cathartidae members have well-developed eyes which are their primary mechanism for sensing the world around them. Members do not have a syrinx, and thus do not communicate via calls; however, they are capable of grunting and hissing which can be used to signal aggression to other cathartids. More commonly, posturing and display are used to communicate, such as puffing of air sacs or snapping at other individuals with the beak. Hierarchies within and between Cathartidae species keep aggressive behaviors to a minimum, with multiple species being able to interact with each other at the same carcass without fighting. Many species in this group forage by following other species to carcasses instead of finding them on their own. Notably, Turkey Vultures have excellent olfactory abilities, with their olfactory bulbs in the brain being around four times as large as a Black Vulture's. This enhanced sense of smell allows Turkey Vultures to easily locate carcasses, and for other cathartids to follow and take advantage of carcasses that they might have otherwise not sensed. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Grigg, et al., 2017; Kirk and Mossman, 1998; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

Food Habits

Cathartids eat carrion nearly exclusively, foraging on vertebrate carcasses as well as invertebrates when available. They will rarely feed on live animals that cannot defend themselves and can rarely kill small organisms to feed. Cathartids are primarily carnivorous, but have been recorded eating plant matter from the digestive systems of carcasses. Cathartids are not choosy about carcasses and will eat from wild and domestic kill alike, including mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and insects. They have also been recording eating rotting plant matter (such as pumpkin) when resources are scarce. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Holste, et al., 2014; Kirk and Mossman, 1998; Wallace, 2003)


Cathartids have few consistent predators. As large-bodied birds, they are only vulnerable to larger birds and nest predators. Eagles killing cathartids at feeding carcasses have been reported but are not common, and there have been reports of predatory mammals predating smaller cathartids at roosting sites. Egg-eating predators such as mongoose and ravens have been seen feeding on their nests. Cathartids most common predator defense is a foul-smelling projectile vomit which is launched at the threatening party. Cathartids also posture and snap with their beaks to keep predators away from their eggs. Currently, humans are the most common predator, with shootings and poisonings common in unprotected species. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Holste, et al., 2014; Kirk and Mossman, 1998; Wallace, 2003)

Ecosystem Roles

Cathartids are vital in the breakdown of large terrestrial carcasses and have physiological adaptations which break down diseases found in the food they eat. In this way, they keep an ecosystem clean and healthy, while facilitating decomposition which aids in nutrient cycling. The extremely low pH of their stomach allows them to destroy microbes which would sicken other vertebrates, such as anthrax. They carry ectoparasites such as mites and feather lice, but not in significantly higher incidences than other birds. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Holste, et al., 2014; Kirk and Mossman, 1998; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Feather lice
  • Mites

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Cathartids do not directly interact with humans but are present in our ecosystems and help clean up unsightly animal corpses. Their ability to breakdown dangerous bacteria such as anthrax also helps limit disease transmission among organisms, including humans. Larger Cathartids, such as California Condors, are of interest to tourists and birdwatchers both due to size and the story of the conservation efforts regarding them. Many have also been prevalent features in folklore and rituals, often representing death. (Finklestein, et al., 2015; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Cathartids have minimal adverse effects on humans. They will eat from livestock carcasses but do not kill them, and occasionally large groups of vultures will congregate in urban areas and cause slight inconvenience to people. In addition, many find cathartids to be off-putting in terms of appearance and diet. (Wallace, 2003)

Conservation Status

Cathartids range from IUCN status of least concern to critically endangered. Smaller cathartids such as Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures have large, stable populations, while California Condors have only a few hundred wild individuals, all descended from 27 captive-bred birds. All cathartids are affected by human activities including hunting, trapping, and poisoning. Hunters who use lead shot to kill off pest species generally do not clean up the carcasses they create, which are then consumed by cathartids, which often results in lead poisoning in the birds. Moreover, a misunderstanding of cathartids has led many humans to trap and kill or intentionally poison the birds in an attempt to keep them from "killing" (as stated above, cathartids do not kill livestock but will feed on their carcasses) their livestock or rummaging through trash that has been left out. Habitat loss has also impacted cathartids, particularly in Central and South America where deforestation for the sake of agriculture and livestock is commonplace. (Buckley, 1999; Finklestein, et al., 2015; Kirk and Mossman, 1998; "California Condor", 2019; "Black Vulture", 2019; "Turkey Vulture", 2019; Wallace, 2003)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Erin Carlson (author), Colorado State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals


an animal that mainly eats meat


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an animal that mainly eats fish


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).


an animal that mainly eats dead animals

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2019. "California Condor" (On-line). All About Birds. Accessed February 16, 2020 at

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2019. "Turkey Vulture" (On-line). All About Birds. Accessed February 16, 2020 at

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