Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus)
|Size||Length: 76 – 84 cm (2)|
|Weight||36 – 54 kg (2)|
- As its name suggests, the red-headed vulture has a striking, bare red head, which contrasts with its black and white body.
- The red-headed vulture is a medium-sized vulture species, but still has a wingspan of over two metres.
- Pairs of red-headed vultures engage in acrobatic courtship displays, soaring together and cartwheeling through the air.
- Like many vultures, the red-headed vulture eats carrion, feeding on the carcasses of a variety of animals.
The red-headed vulture is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
With its striking, bare, red head and jet-black body, the red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) is unmistakable among vulture species (4). Despite being a medium-sized vulture, this species still possesses an impressive wingspan of over two metres (2). Both the head and legs are dark red and the neck is flanked by two broad, red folds of skin known as lappets (2) (5). The black-feathered body is characterised by white patches on the flanks above the thighs, bare red patches either side of the crop (5) and tapering wings (2). Males and females are similar (5), except for the eyes, which, in the male are white or yellowish, and dark in the female (2). Juvenile red-headed vultures have dark eyes and more mottled, dark brown plumage (2) (4).
Formerly widespread throughout the Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia, in recent decades the red-headed vulture has undergone significant declines in both range and population. It has become uncommon in Nepal, and is rare in Pakistan, the north-east of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is sparsely distributed throughout most of India and remains fairly common in the west Himalayan foothills; although, it is rare or absent in some areas such as the north-eastern states of India and Gujarat. It formerly occurred in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore but now appears to be absent. In southern China its presence has not been recorded since the 1960s, and it is nearly extinct in Thailand (4).
The red-headed vulture is found in a wide variety of habitats from open countryside and savanna to dry deciduous forest and wooded hills up to 2,000 metres (2) (4). This vulture can also be found near to human settlements, which provide good sources of carrion (4).
Unlike most of the larger species of vulture, the red-headed vulture does not live in large groups and is most often found solitary or in a breeding pair (5). Courtship in this species is particularly acrobatic, with both the male and the female engaging in soaring and dramatic mutual cartwheeling displays. Once established, a breeding pair will actively exclude other red-headed vultures from their territory. During the breeding season (mainly December to April), each pair builds a nest at the top of a large tree or, in open areas where large trees are absent, on the top of a bush (2). The large, flat nest is constructed from sticks and lined, towards the centre, with leaves and dry grass (5). Usually a single egg is laid, with both parents sharing the incubation duties. After around 45 days the chick hatches (2).
Vultures are notorious for their diet of carrion, and the red-headed vulture is no exception (2). It will feed on the carcasses of a variety of species including large ungulates, birds, turtles and fish (6). The red-headed vulture can often be found amongst the congregations of various vulture species that form around larger carcasses. In the past, it may have been excluded from feeding by larger vulture species of the genus Gyps. However, in recent years the populations of Gyps species have dramatically crashed, hence, this competitive exclusion may now be less common (4) (7). Red-headed vultures will also steal food from other vulture species, particularly the smaller Egyptian vulture Neophron percnopterus (2).
Until recently, the red-headed vulture was not considered to be a species of particular conservation concern, despite steadily declining in both population and range, particularly in South-East Asia (1). These reductions were believed to be due to various factors, including the fall in populations of large ungulates as a result of uncontrolled hunting, disease, direct persecution of the birds, and developments in waste disposal meaning that carcasses were more likely to be quickly disposed of in areas of human habitation (4) (6).
However, while these threats are still ongoing, they are unlikely to account for the drastic population decline of over 94 percent that has occurred in India since 1999 (4) (7). The likely cause of this massive loss is the consumption of livestock treated with the veterinary drug diclofenac. The drug, which causes kidney failure in vultures, has received widespread attention in recent years, as it has been shown to be responsible for the huge declines in populations of vultures of the genus gyps that feed on the carcasses of treated livestock (4) (7). Somewhat puzzlingly, the red-headed vulture’s population crash does not appear to have occurred until some years after that of the Gyps species. As an explanation, it has been proposed that competitive exclusion from carcasses by the larger Gyps species essentially shielded the red-headed vulture from poisoning, until the Gyps species were no longer abundant, and the red-headed vulture gained much greater access and exposure to contaminated meat (7).
Although the red-headed vulture occurs in various protected areas throughout its range, these are unable protect it from diclofenac treated livestock. Fortunately, the manufacture of diclofenac has now been banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan, and its use is being phased out and replaced with a similar drug that is not toxic to vultures. However, it may be some years before the use of diclofenac completely comes to an end in these countries. It is, therefore, urgent that captive-breeding programs, similar to those being employed for Gyps species, be developed in order to safeguard this species from total extinction (4).
In Cambodia, efforts are being made to supplement the vulture’s dwindling food supply by providing carcasses at designated “vulture restaurants.” In addition, the red-headed vulture population in Cambodia and the use of diclofenac are being continuously monitored, and programs to educate local people about the dangers of using diclofenac are being implemented (6). Laudable efforts such as these must be extended to other countries in the red-headed vulture’s range in order to preserve the scarce south-east Asian populations.
For further information on the conservation of critically endangered birds see:
BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme:
This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
- Carrion: the flesh of a dead animal.
- Crop: the crop is an expanded, muscular pouch near the throat. It is a part of the digestive tract, and is used to temporarily store food.
- Deciduous: a plant that sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
- Ungulates: hoofed, grazing mammals.
IUCN Red List (October, 2007)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
CITES (October, 2008)
BirdLife International (October, 2008)
- Whistler, H. (1928) Popular Handbook of Indian Birds. Gurney & Jackson, London..
BirdLife, WCS and WWF. (2005) Cambodia Vulture Conservation Action Plan. BirdLife International in Indochina, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Cambodia, Conservation Society (WCS), Phnom Penh. Available at:
- Cuthbert, R., Green, R.E., Ranade, S., Saravanan, S., Pain, D.J., Prakash, V. and Cunningham, A.A. (2006) Rapid population declines of egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) in India. Animal Conservation, 9: 349 - 354.