Read-headed Vulture - (Sarcogyps calvus)




The Red-headed Vulture is a medium-sized, rather bulky and mostly black Old World Vulture of the Sarcogyps genus. The adult bird shows a bare red head and legs. Other names attributed to this vulture are Asian Black Vulture, King Vulture or Pondicherry Vulture.


As an Indomalayan species this vulture is native to most of the Indian subcontinent, India, Pakistan, Himalayan foothills, Nepal, parts of Burma and southeast Asia. Once this species used to be endemic to India, nowadays it is close to extinction.


red-headed vulture
Red-headed Vulture - source: ePhotocorp/agency iStock


Distribution, Population Status and Conservation of the Red-headed Vulture


Once upon a time the Red-headed Vulture was endemic in India, together with the White-rumped Vulture and the Long-billed Vulture. Unfortunately these are bygone times. Beginning in the 1990s, a strong population of about 10-11 million individuals was almost completely wiped out over a short period of 10-15 years. Initially it was completely unclear what might had caused this mass dying of a species. Even studies run over years could not shed any light on the matter. Only by sheer chance the reason was found to be the agent diclofenac, which at that time was used successfully in veterinary medicine. We know this pharmaceutical from human medicine where it is most helpful to people suffering from orthopaedic ailments. Consumption of residual remnants of it by vultures led to acute organ failure. A dramatic effect, considering that vulture can consume any sort of corps poison without suffering any harm. 


The dramatic effect on vultures was soon realised and the agent was banned from use in veterinary medicine, however almost too late. The Red-headed Vulture was close to extinction and still is an extremely endangered species. We sould bear in mind that species with reproduction rates <1 cannont compensate individual losses that exceed the reproduction rate.


Anyway, in order to help the vultures survive the governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan agreed on conservation programmes which help maintain the population with a special breeding programme.


The loss in population with the Red-headed Vulture was a dramatic dicline by 90%, the other two Gyps species suffered declines by 97-99%. Currently, the population of the Red-headed Vulture is estimated at about 3,500-15,000 individuals. Status: "critically endangered".




Description - Characteristics: Red-headed Vulture


Breeding – Clutch – Measurements – Habitat – Diet - Threats



Order: Accipitriformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Sarcogyps

Species: Red-headed Vulture


Scientific Name: Sarcogyps calvus


Names and Synonyms of the Red-headed Vulture


Name in German: Kahlkopfgeier

Name in French: Vautour royal

Name in Dutch: Indische Oorgier

Name in Italian: Avvoltoio calvo

Name in Spanish: Buitre Cabecirrojo

Name in Finnish: Kalmokorppikotka

Name in Danish: Rødhovedet Grib

Name in Swedish: Rödhuvad gam

Name in Polish: Sęp łysy

Name in Russian: Индийский ушастый гриф

Name in Chinese: 黑兀鹫gam

Name in Chinese (traditional): 黑兀鷲

Name in Bengali: রাজ শকুন

Name in Malaysian: Burung Hereng Kepala Merah

Name in Nepali: सुन गिद्ध

Name in Thai: พญาแร้ง


Description of the Red-headed Vulture


Distribution: Indomalayan. Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, southwest China, Thailand, Malaysia, parts of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.


Movements: Mostly nomadic movements of the immatures.


Habitat: dry forest, dense deciduous woodland, wooded savannah, open plains, cultivation, semi-desserts, lowlands and foothills, river valleys; vicinity of villages. Settles in areas from sea level and up to altitudes of 1,500 m , locally even upt to 2,500-3,000 m


Behaviour: Solitary and also mixing with other vulture species. In groups no more than 20-30 individuals.





Size: 76-86 cm

Tail: 23-26 cm

Weight: 4,700 (♂) – 5,400 (♀) g

Wingspan: 199-227 cm

Wing: 570-608 mm




Sexually mature: Most probably not before 3rd to 4th year.

Mating: Coincides with nest building prior to start of breeding


Clutches per breeding season1 clutch

Breeding: In India from late January mostly lasting to mid April.


Nest: Large platform on high trees, tendency to take over nests from other birds of prey. Nest mostly in woods, on the edge of djungle, also close to settlements; on bushes in semi-desserts in heights of 1-3 m.


Clutch: 1 egg

Eggs: white egg with limited amount of speckles


Egg Measurements and Weights

Length x Width: 85.9x52.5 mm;

Weight: ≈ ??? g


Recurrent clutches: probably on when loss of clutch happens in the early stages of incubation.


Incubation: ≃ 45-50 days


Fledging: Chicken is fed by both parents. Fledging after c. 80-90 days.


Dependency: It must be assumed that the young vultures are dependent on their parents for several weeks for feeding and education.





Food: All sorts of carrion, also likes to chase other vultures for their prey, the Egyptian Vulture is likely to fall victim to such attacks (Kleptoparasitism).


Longevity: unknown.


Mortality: unknown.


Threats: As critically endangered as is the case with the other Indian vultures. The use of the painkiller Diclofenac in veterenary medicin led to a catastrophic decline of the population by 90% in early 2000.






Bauer, Hans-Günther, Bezzel, Einhard et. al. (HG), Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band 1+2, Sonderausgabe 2012, Aula Verlag, Wiebelsheim

Bauer, Hans-Günther, Bezzel, Einhard et. al. (HG), Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band 3, Literatur und Anhang, Aula Verlag Wiebelsheim, 2. vollständig überarbeitete Auflage 1993

Baumgart, Wolfgang, Europas Geier, Flugriesen im Aufwind, AULA-Verlag Wiebelsheim, 2001

Bezzel, Einhard, Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Non-Passeriformes, Band 1, AULA-Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985

Bruun/Singer/König/Der Kosmos Vogelführer, Franck'sche Verlagshandlung Stuttgart, 5. Auflage 1982

Ferguson-Lees, James and Christie, David A., Raptors of the World, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston New York, 2001


External Links


Vultures Conservation Foundation - European Vulture Protection and Conservation


Image Credits


Red-headed Vulture - source: ePhotocorp/agency iStock