White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis)

French: Vautour à tête blanche
GenusTrigonoceps (1)
SizeLength: 85 cm (2)
Wingspan: 230 cm (2)
Weight3300 – 5300 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

With its bare, pink face and bright orange-red bill with a peacock blue base, this is one of Africa’s most colourful vultures (4). The white-headed vulture gets its name from the downy, white feathers on its head which give it an angular appearance. The bright facial colours contrast sharply with the black body, tail, wings and high ruff around its neck. The belly and thighs are white and its legs are pale pink (2) (4). Like other vultures, the white-headed vulture has a number of adaptations for feeding on the carcasses of large animals, but is also capable of killing small prey. The strong bill is capable of tearing flesh and the sharp, curved talons can grasp and pierce prey. Their large, broad wings can carry them for hours as they search for food (5).

The white-headed vulture has a widespread but patchy distribution in Africa, from Senegal east to Ethiopia, and south through East Africa to Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and northern South Africa (2).

Inhabits hot, dry woodland and tree savanna (2), generally at lower altitudes, but can be found up to elevations of 4,000 metres (6). The species is commonly found in association with the baobab tree Adansonia digitata (7).

The white-headed vulture is an early riser and flies out from its roost earlier in the day than other vultures (4). It is often the first vulture to arrive at a kill made by carnivores during the previous night, and will feed on carrion and bone fragments in peace for a while before other vultures arrive (2), whereupon the white-headed vulture generally retreats (4) (7). White-headed vultures can, however, be very aggressive at a carcass and will rush in to a group of vultures to grab a scrap of food that is then taken away (7). This vulture species generally feeds alone or in pairs, and even at a large carcass rarely more than a handful of white-headed vultures will gather (2). They are considered to be an ‘aloof’ vulture, generally remaining on the fringe of a large group of feeding vultures (7). While the white-headed vulture generally feeds on carcasses, it will also steal food from other birds and, unlike most other vultures, sometimes kills small or weak prey. The diet of the white-headed vulture also includes termites, locusts, and sometimes stranded fish, when they are available (2) (7).

White-headed vultures lay a single egg at a time, usually in the dry season (2), into a nest they have constructed high up in a thorny acacia or baobab tree (4). The egg is incubated for 55 to 56 days (2). Initially white, the chick will have mostly brown plumage not long after it fledges at an age of 115 to 120 days (2) (7).

Assessed as Vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the white-headed vulture is threatened by reductions in populations of medium-sized mammals and wild ungulates, on whose carcasses they feed, and the loss of suitable habitat (6). As a result, populations have been declining rapidly in West Africa since the early 1940s, and in southern Africa it now only generally occurs within protected areas (8). Like other vultures, some are accidentally killed after eating poisoned bait, set out by farmers to kill jackals suspected of taking their livestock (6), and human disturbance can cause adult white-headed vultures to abandon their nests during breeding (8), and the species is also susceptible to capture for trade and traditional medicine (7).

Relatively little is known about the biology of this species, and any research is a valuable contribution to its conservation (7). The white-headed vulture is very reliant on protected areas throughout its range (6), which may protect certain populations from the threats of habitat loss and poisoning. To protect this accomplished scavenger and other vultures from becoming increasingly threatened, it has been recommended that further campaigns are implemented to raise awareness in farmers about the affect of poisoning on vultures (6) (9).

For further information on the white-headed vulture see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (19/03/08) by Campbell Murn, Chief Scientific Officer, The Hawk Conservancy Trust.

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)