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Old World Vulture identification guide

Richard Cuthbert

Vultures are found across world in all continents except Australasia and Antarctica. Old World vultures in Africa, Asia and Europe belong to the family Falconidae and are most closely related to other birds of prey. While their appearance is similar, evidence from genetic studies and their morphology indicates that the New World Vultures of North and South America (eg Californian condor Gymnogyps californianus, Andean condor Vultur gryphus, king vulture Sarcoramphus papa, turkey vulture Cathartes aura and greater yellow-headed vulture Cathartes melambrotus) are more closely related to storks than to Old World vultures. Co-evolution has shaped their morphology and behaviour to parallel closely the Old World species, although in contrast to Old World vultures which primarily rely on sight for finding their food, New World vultures find prey through using sight and a highly developed sense of smell.

[All species links take you to the BirdLife International Species Factsheets where you can find out more about distribution, populations, trends, threats and more]

Gyps vultures

The most familiar and abundant species of vultures belong to the genus Gyps, which includes eight species that occur across Africa, Europe and Asia. Two species are migratory, the Himalayan griffon vulture (G. himalayensis) and Eurasian griffon vulture (G. fulvus), while the other six species are resident although they may still make large seasonal movements in response to food supplies and climatic conditions (eg during the monsoon in Asia). The three resident species found in Asia are the Oriental white-backed vulture (G. bengalensis, also known as the white-rumped vulture), long-billed vulture (G. indicus, also known as the Indian vulture) and slender-billed vulture (G. tenuirostris).

The other three species of Gyps are found in Africa: the African white-backed (G. africanus), Rueppell’s (G. rueppellii) and Cape griffon vulture (G. coprotheres). No Gyps species is completely geographically isolated from its congeners. Gyps vultures are obligate scavengers (they have to scavenge and do not hunt for themselves) and perform an important ecological function by stripping the soft tissue from carcasses. Gyps vultures used to be widespread and abundant, accounting for the majority of vulture sightings in both Africa and Asia. Their abundance in India and Nepal, where Hindu religious taboos restrict the consumption of meat, is explained by the role Gyps has in consuming cattle carcasses. In most parts of Africa, vultures primarily feed on dead wild ungulates. All Gyps species are wide-ranging in their foraging behaviour and juveniles disperse more widely than adults.

Identification guide - plates

We are grateful to Rishad Naoroji for generously allowing the following plates from ‘Birds of Prey of the Indian Sub-continent’ published by Christopher Helm 2007, to be used on this website (not for reproduction elsewhere).

11 – Cinereous Vulture

12 – Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier)

13 – Egyptian Vulture

14 – Himalayan Griffon

15 – Indian Long-billed Vulture

16 – Slender-billed Vulture

17 – Eurasian Griffon

18 – Indian (Oriental) White-backed Vulture

19 – Red-headed Vulture

Individual species accounts

All descriptions from ‘Birds of Prey of the Indian Sub-continent’ published by Christopher Helm 2007.

Klaus Lechten
Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

IUCN status: Near Threatened (NT)

Population size and trend: maximum of 6,700 mature individuals; declining

Distribution: widely and disjunctly distributed across the Palearctic, Afrotropical and Indomalayan regions

Identification: head cream-buff; neck and under-parts light to deep orange-buff; note blackish mask and beard; pale eye with red ring. Upperparts dark metal-grey with pale narrow shaft streaks. Legs heavily feathered to toes; dark broken gorget.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Cinerous vulture (Aegypius monachus)

IUCN status: Near Threatened (NT)

Population size and trend: up to 20,000 mature individuals; declining

Distribution: patchy distribution across southern Europe, the Middle East and into western and northern parts of Asia

Identification: pale downy head and ruff with dark foreneck and dark mask; adults are browner than juvenile. Underparts vaguely streaked paler than body.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Paul Donald
Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus)

IUCN status: Endangered (EN)

Population size and trend: maximum 41,000 mature individuals; declining

Distribution: large, but patchy, range across southern Europe, western Asia, and most of Africa

Identification: mainly white with black flight feathers and yellow tapering face. Rusty smudges on neck and upperwings.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Chris Bowden
Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus)

IUCN status: Least Concern (LC)

Population size and trend: potentially over 1 million individuals; increasing

Distribution: widely disributed across Europe, northern Africa and western Asia to India

Identification: huge size; pale tawny to sandy-buff; extensive down on head and neck; short cream-yellow to whitish ruff; yellowish bill; pale eyes; blackish cere; greyish legs and feet.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Corbett, NP
Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis)

IUCN status: Near Threatened (NT)

Population size and trend: maximum of 334,000 mature individuals; stable

Distribution: western China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, east through the Himalayan mountain range in India, Nepal and Bhutan, to central China and Mongolia

Identification: huge, overall very pale. Downy head; pale bill; contrasting dark flight feathers.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Jugal Tiwari
Long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus)

IUCN status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Population size and trend: 30,000 individuals; declining

Distribution: India and south-eastern Pakistan

Identification: pale, sandy to sandy-brown body and upperwing-coverts; moderate to light down on black-ish head and neck; white downy ruff; prominent pale edges to dark tertials; white rump; comparatively slim bill; pale greyish-yellow cere; yellow bill. Whiter rump and back than the Eurasion Griffon when in flight.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Mike Jordan
Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis)

IUCN status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Population size and trend: fewer than 10,000 mature individuals; declining

Distribution: Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam

Identification: black and white ruff; grey secondaries; prominent white rump; dark bill with pale upper mandible.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

OV Gjershaug
Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus)

IUCN status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Population size and trend: fewer than 10,000 mature individuals; declining

Distribution: mainly India and Nepal, with scattered small numbers across south-east Asia

Identification: dark with heavy bill; reddish head, wattles and legs; dull whitish patch on lower back. Dark eyes denote female.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

Corbett NP. PV/ Subramaniam/Sarita Subramaniam
Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)

IUCN status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Population size and trend: fewer than 2,500 individuals; declining

Distribution: mainly India, Nepal and Bangladesh

Identification: Note very slender, naked, black head and neck; small shabby neck ruff; narrower pale edges to tertials and greater wing-coverts; pale, mottled rump. Bill may show yellow but cere is always black. Note oval nostrils, elongated bill and peaked crown. Distinguished from indicus by black cere in all ages and short, sparse feather on downy white thighs.

Link to BirdLife International Factsheet

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