Featured family: Vultures of Panama

New World Vultures - Cathartidae family


The New World Vultures (Cathartidae) contains seven species in five genera found only in warm and temperate areas of the Americas. It includes five vultures and two condors. These large soaring birds resemble the Old World Vultures but are not closely related. Their superficial similarities are due to convergent evolution

Vultures are scavenging birds, feeding mostly on carrion or carcasses of dead animals without apparent ill effects. They have a good sense of smell, find carcasses by sight and by smell, they have hooked bills for tearing flesh but lack the talons and grasping feet of other birds of prey. A particular characteristic is a bald head, lacking feathers.

In Panama four species of vultures in three genera occur, they are locally known by the common names "gallote" or "gallinazo": 

Coragyps genus

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) also known as the American Black Vulture. It's range extends from the southeastern United States to central Chile and Uruguay in South America. Although a common and widespread species, it has a somewhat more restricted distribution than the Turkey Vulture. It is entirely black except for a prominent white patch at base of primaries, which is visible in flight. In Panama it is found throughout the country; it's abundant around cities and towns and in coastal areas, common in other open areas, and rare in extensively forested habitats.



 A flock of black vultures on a dog carcass


Cathartes genus

Having three species, this is the only genera of New World vultures that is not monotypic. Two of the three species occur in Panama.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most widespread of the New World vultures, ranging from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. It inhabits a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, shrublands, pastures, and deserts. Its red head distinguishes it from other vultures, in flight underwings are two-toned. In Panama it's very common nearly throughout the country, including cities, towns, open areas and over forest. Resident race is found throughout the year; migrating flocks pass in the tens of thousands, with migrating individuals present during winter. Locally also known as "noneca".



Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) was considered to be the same species as the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (the third member of the genus, not present in Panama) until they were split in 1964. It is found in Mexico, Central America, and South America in seasonally wet or flooded lowland grassland, swamps, and heavily degraded former forest. The head and neck are pale orange with red or blue areas. It is very similar to Turkey Vulture but smaller. In Panama it's fairly common on the Pacific slope, from Chiriquí to eastern Panamá Province, over pastures and marshes in lowlands; it's rare in the immediate area to Panama City and in Darién.





Sarcoramphus genus

King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) lives predominantly in tropical lowland forests stretching from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. Easily identified because it's large and predominantly white with black flight and tail feathers, and a grey ruff. The multicoloured head and neck are bald, with the skin color varying from yellow, orange, blue, purple, and red. Also has a very noticeable yellow fleshy caruncle on its beak

The king vulture has the habit of perching in tall trees and flying at altitude, and it primarily eats carrion found in the forest, though it is known to venture onto nearby savannas in search of food. Once it has found a carcass, the king vulture displaces the other vultures because of its large size and strong bill. Using its bill to tear, it makes the initial cut in a fresh carcass. This allows the smaller, weaker-beaked vultures, which can not open the carcass, access to the carcass after the king vulture has fed. However, when it is at the same kill as the larger Andean Condor, the king vulture always defers to it.

King vultures were popular figures in the Mayan codices, sometimes portrayed as a god with a human body and a bird head. According to Mayan mythology, this god often carried messages between humans and the other gods.

Although listed as Least Concern there's evidence of a decline in population due primarily to habitat destruction and poaching.

In Panama it is uncommon on both slopes usually over forested areas, occasionally over grassland or pasture. I've observed them soaring very high in Tortí, Gamboa, and Isla Coiba.

I personally consider this one of the most beautiful birds in the world, disregarding it's feeding habits that could make them stinky. That's why I have made the sets of portraits you will see below. And please, be sure to read the last part of the post.


King vulture in flight over Panama Rainforest Discovery Center's tower, Gamboa





Portraits showing the multiplicity of color

Special thanks to Parque Municipal Summit

I want to thank Parque Municipal Summit, and its director Edgar Araúz, who made these awesome pictures possible. It's necessary to disclose that this pair is in captivity in the park. They are known as Romeo & Julieta, and you can tell why from the romance going on in certain pictures. Parque Municipal Summit is a zoological and botanical garden managed by Panama Municipality (city government), it is located in Omar Torrijos Avenue in the way to Gamboa, outside Panama City. You should know that I do not endorse zoological parks neither pictures of animals in captivity, and  I try to make all my photos of wild animals in the wild, as it should be. However, in this case I asked (and was permitted) to make these photographs to complete this article since close range pictures like these are almost imposible in the wild due to the habits and habitat of this majestic vulture. Summit Park is not a regular zoo;  actually, these individuals, as most of the animals in Summit, were rescued from poachers or from dangerous conditions. 

I bet most of our readers didn't know about the beauty of this scavenger, or maybe never took enough time to admire the details and color. So, if you liked these pictures and even if you didn't, I encourage you to visit Summit Park. I encourage you to admire the beauty of all the animals they have in display. Besides, Summit Park is a great place to take your children and teach them to love and protect the environment, animals and plants. As a matter of fact, the point of our webpage and all these posts is precisely that. I want you, my reader, to learn the natural history of the species of our small country, learn to admire and love them, and learn to protect them so they don't have to be in a place like Summit. Therefore, Panama Birds and Wildlife Photos and Summit's works are completely compatible.

You can visit Summit all days from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, and it's extremely cheap: children under 5 years old enter for free, students and retired $1, locals and residents $2, and foreign visitors $5. There you can also see other magnificent animals like the harpy eagle, tapir, jaguar, white-tailed deers, great curassow, macaws, and all kind of monkeys, they also have the largest botanical garden in the country with trees and plants species representing all the continents.

For sure this is the beginning of a great partnership, and I promise I will return to Summit to make more pictures and help them promote their work.