Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Cathartes burrovianus
Population status:
Least Concern
Body length:
53–66 cm (21–26 in)
Wingspan:
150–165 cm (59–65 in)
Weight:
0.95 to 1.55 kg (2.1 to 3.4 lb)
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Angel Muela

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Did You Know?

  • The Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is one of the few bird species in the world known for its keen sense of smell. 
  • Like other vultures, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is not very vocal. It doesn't have calls or songs, though it may grunt or hiss from time to time. 
  • At one point, the Lesser and Greater Yellow-headed Vultures were considered to be just one species. Scientists split them into two species in the 1960's. 

Other Vultures

How The Peregrine Fund is Helping

Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, we do work with a number of vulture species in the Americas and in Africa including California and Andean Condors,.... . We participate in Vulture Awareness Day, and our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists the world over gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

Where They Live

The Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is found in South America, east of the Andes, throughout much of Central America and parts of Mexico. It is resident in the following countries: Argentina,  Belize; Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador; El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. 

If you ever find yourself in Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture territory, be sure to pay close attention to all the vultures you see. At first glance, it could easily be mistaken for a Turkey Vulture or a Greater Yellow-headed Vulture. This striking bird spends a lot of its time soaring and foraging in a number of different lowland habitats including brackish and freshwater marshes, wet savannas, grasslands, mangroves, second-growth scrub, wooded margins of rivers, and even close to ranches or villages in some areas.  

What They Do

If one doesn't look closely enough, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture can sometimes be confused with the Turkey Vulture of the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture. Like those two species, it is mostly all black, with grayish feet. When in flight, its primary feathers are a pale gray, which creates a contrasting black and silver pattern. It even holds wings in a dihedral (v-shaped) pattern and tilts from side to side in flight, just like the Turkey Vulture does. Of course, a clue to the best way to distinguish the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture from the others is right in its name! While the Turkey Vulture has a bright red head, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture's head is a lovely mix of shades of pale orange and yellow. Though physically very similar to the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture prefers open habitats, whereas the former is found mostly in forests.

Like many other vulture species, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture spends a good amount of time soaring in its search for food. However, unlike many vultures, this stunning raptor doesn't usually fly very high in the sky. It prefers to soar closer to the ground.

Like the Turkey Vulture, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures have featherless heads. When feeding, vultures sometimes need to stick their heads deep into the cavities of dead animals to get to the juiciest bits! At times like these, a bald head is very useful – otherwise bits of flesh, blood, or other fluids might get stuck on their feathers, creating quite a mess. Though vultures spend a lot of time preening, or cleaning their feathers, it would be impossible for them to clean their own heads. 

Usually seen singly, or as scattered individuals, but sometimes in large groups of 10 or more individuals.  Perches on shrubs, fenceposts, or on the ground

Why They Need our Help

The Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is considered a species of Least Concern. This means that conservationists aren't too concerned about this species' population. However, this doesn't mean that this vulture doesn't face some difficult threats. One of the main threats it faces is the loss of wetland habitat. When wetlands are drained, or as Climate Change affects the amount of rainfall in certain areas, these vultures could lose valuable habitat. 

What They Eat

The Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is a scavenging raptor. This means it feeds mainly on animals that are already dead. Its favorite food item seems to be fish, which it often finds in drying pools. Some biologists think that the vultures actually kill the dying fish stranded in these pools. They have also been observed feeding on road-killed dogs and cats, and on the carcasses of anteaters (Tamandua tetradactyla), crab-eating foxes (Cerdocyon thous), nutrias (Lontra longicaudus), coatis (Nasua nasua), capybaras (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), boas (Eunectes notatus) and other snakes (e.g., Hydrodynastes gigas), lizards (Tupinambis merianae), eels (Synbranchus marmoratus), and toads (Rhandia cv. quelen).

When this bird is alone, it mainly eats the carcasses of small animals. However, if the carcass of a larger animal is found, many birds may group together to feed. In fact, in Mexico, one researcher observed more than 30 individuals hanging around fields where farmers were doing some harvesting.  When a large carcass is found, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures might be the first at the scene. However, once the Turkey and Black Vultures show up, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is often pushed aside so the other vultures can feed. 
 

Nest, Eggs, and Young

Similar to other New World vultures, this vulture doesn't build its own nest. Instead, the female with lay her eggs in thick grass on the ground or in the hollow of a tree. These vultures usually lay 1-2 eggs each breeding season, which are creamy-white with heavy splotches of brown, gray, and rufous. Usually, the female will lay the first egg in her clutch, and about 2 days later, she will lay the second one.

Once eggs are laid, the must be incubated for around 40 days. After the chicks hatch, the adults must feed their young often to make sure they grow into healthy birds. But, they don’t bring prey back to the nest in their talons like many other birds of prey do. Instead, they feed their young regurgitated food from their own digestive system.

Nestling will remain in the nest between 70-75 days before flying for the first time. 

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and the World Center for Birds of Prey

The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about raptors. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including several eagle species! Though we don't have any resident Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures at the World Center for Birds of Prey, if you visit you will be rewarded with an opportunity to meet our resident Turkey Vulture, who is a close cousin of the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. At the visitor center, you will see this lovely bird of prey up close in our outdoor aviary. Come learn about this unique species and all its neotropical neighbors, including the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.

References:

BirdLife International. 2016. Cathartes burrovianusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22697630A93625866. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22697630A93625866.en. Downloaded on 22 June 2021.

Eitniear, J. C. (2020). Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.lyhvul1.01

Ferguson-Lees, James; David A. Christie (2001). Raptors of the World. Houghton Mifflin Field Guides. pp. 309–310. 

Global Raptor Information Network. 2021. Species account: Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 22 Jun. 2021

Wetmore, Alexander (1964). "A revision of the American vultures of the genus Cathartes"Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections146 (6): 15–17.