5 Curious Aspects of the Savannah Vulture

The vultures of the American continent are a most interesting taxonomic family. Here is an example, the savannah vulture.
5 Curious Aspects of the Savannah Vulture
Sara González Juárez

Written and verified by the psychologist Sara González Juárez.

Last update: 19 January, 2023

You can recognize the Savannah vulture by its huge V-shaped wings in the sky. This vulture has a lot to tell, despite being a relatively common sight in the countries it lives in. Its function as a scavenger species is fundamental for ecosystems.

For this reason, and because being surprised is often the best way to learn, here you’ll find some curiosities about this raptor that you’ll enjoy learning about.

Biology of the Savannah vulture

The Savannah vulture, also known as the lesser yellow-headed vulture, has the scientific name of Cathartes burrovianus and belongs to the Cathartidae family. It inhabits the neotropical region of the American continent, from southeastern Mexico to northern Uruguay and Argentina.

It’s a large bird, with a wingspan of more than 1.5 meters (5 feet), and has an unmistakable black plumage. The head, as in other scavenger birds, doesn’t have any feathers, and is pink and tinged with some red and blue tones.

It’s sometimes confused with the greater yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes melambrotus), but it’s smaller and has more brownish tones in its plumage.

It inhabits savannas, seasonally flooded swamps, lowlands with pastures, and degraded forests. This is where it feeds on carrion, although it may occasionally hunt small aquatic animals if carcasses are not available.

A Savanna vulture.
Cathartes burrovianus.

Curious aspects of the savannah vulture

With this brief description, you may not find anything special about the savannah vulture that other raptors of these lands don’t have. Here are 5 interesting aspects about this very peculiar bird!

1. The savannah vulture doesn’t have a syrinx

The syrinx is a bird’s phonatory organ that’s located at the lower end of the trachea and contains a set of muscles to allow them to sing. American vultures, including the savannah vulture, don’t have this organ, and so they don’t emit vocalizations. It’s common to hear them emit a high-pitched whistle.

2. It doesn’t build nests

Another peculiarity of the savannah vulture is that it lays its eggs directly on rock. To reproduce, the pair chooses a hollow in a cliff where they can settle and there they deposit two cream-colored eggs with brown and gray spots. They don’t cushion the ground in any way.

The chicks will spend 2-3 months on this ledge while the parents care for them and regurgitate pre-digested food.

3. The savannah vulture’s great sense of smell

As with all other raptors, the savannah vulture relies heavily on its well-developed sense of sight. But what really distinguishes this raptor from the rest is its sense of smell, which is responsible for pinpointing where the carcasses are located.

Early decomposing carcasses emanate a substance called ethanethiol, and it’s this gas that the savannah vulture detects. To process it at a brain level, it has a much more developed olfactory lobe than other scavenger birds. As you can see, it’s fully equipped to find its food.

4. Teamwork

The savannah aura has a rather thin beak, so it isn’t always able to tear the skin of the carcasses it finds. However, collaboration with other scavenging birds is very common.

The king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), for example, follows it to find carrion, as it doesn’t have the great sense of smell the savannah vulture has. However, it does have a strong beak, so our raptor just has to let it start eating before it can easily access the meat.

5. Its curious way of dissipating its body heat

A vulture.
Cathartes burrovianus.

A peculiar way for these birds to dissipate heat is to defecate on their own legs. In this way, by evaporation, they manage to lower the temperature of their skin. The extremities, lacking feathers, are the ideal points for thermoregulation in birds.

This habit, shared by other vultures of the American continent, is called urohidrosis and is a technique of adaptation to dry and warm environments. For this reason, savannah vultures shouldn’t be banded to monitor populations, as their legs could become infected with feces.

Did you know all these facts about the savannah vulture? The truth is that, even though it isn’t in danger of extinction, it deserves attention from humans, because scavenging animals are the ones that keep the habitat free of diseases that could be transmitted through carcasses. So, if you look up and see some black V-shaped wings, remember to thank them!

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  • Oliveira, T., Machado, F. C., & Costa, H. C. (2010). Exchanging carrion for fresh meat: the vulture Cathartes burrovianus (Aves, Cathartidae) preys on the snake Xenodon merremii (Serpentes, Dipsadidae) in southeastern Brazil. Biotemas23(4), 177-180.
  • BirdLife International. 2021. Cathartes burrovianusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T22697630A163511443. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2021-3.RLTS.T22697630A163511443.en. Accessed on 27 December 2022.
  • Cathartes burrovianus. (s. f.). eBird. Recuperado 27 de diciembre de 2022, de https://ebird.org/ebird/home?siteLanguage=es

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