King Vulture is resident from southern Mexico to northern Argentina and northern Uruguay, totaling approximately 14.3 million km2 in area (Noriega and Areta 2005, BirdLife International 2014). Within this range King Vulture is widely but sparsely distributed; it is primarily sedentary (non-migratory) but ranges over large areas (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001; BirdLife International 2014). They occur primarily from sea level to 1500 m, but on the east side of the Andes they range locally up to 2500 m and occasionally wander to 3300 m (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001).
Distribution outside the Americas
Endemic to the Americas.
King Vulture inhabits lowland dry or humid tropical forests and other wooded areas, and premontane foothills, generally well away from human habitations. However, they can forage more broadly to different extents across their range into partially cleared woodland, coastal grassland, steppes, savannahs and cattle ranches (Reid 1989, Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). They have been identified as primary forest specialists among the guild of avian scavengers (Lemon 1991).
Currently occurs north in Mexico to Guerrero, on the Pacific slope, and to southern Veracruz, on the Atlantic slope; but formerly occurred north to Sinaloa (Pacific slope) and to northern Veracruz or southern Tamaulipas (Atlantic slope) (Howell and Webb 1995). There also is the possibility that King Vulture, or a closely related species, occurred in Florida, southeastern United States, in the 18th century (Snyder and Fry 2013).
Fossils of King Vulture are reported from Brazil and Cuba from the upper Pleistocene/lower Holocene (Cuello 1988), and from northern Argentina from the late Pleistocene (Noriega and Areta 2005). Note that currently King Vulture does not occur on Cuba, and the site of the Argentine fossil is ca 700 km farther south than the current distributional limit of King Vulture. Two additional species of Sarcoramphus are known only from fossils: S. kernense Miller 1931, from the Pliocene of California, and S. fisheri Campbell 1979, from the Pleistocene of Peru.
Mlikovsky (2015) questions the validity of the Argentina fossile "Noriega and Areta (2005) identified from the late Pleistocene of Camet Norte, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, several bones from a single individual of a Sarcoramphus vulture. The bones were found in a deposit C-14-dated to 24,550±600 yr BP (Pardiñas et al. 1998). Pardiñas et al. (1998) reconstructed the local paleoenvironment as semiarid-arid steppes. Noriega & Areta (2005) challenged their view, arguing that the presence of a Sarcoramphus species was evidence for the presence of forests. They rejected the possibility that threcorded individual was a vagrant and suggested that it originated from a local population. However, the record, as they presented it, allows for both interpretations. If the specimen indeed originated from a local population, then further research is needed to assess its taxonomic status. It is not impossible that an extinct Sarcoramphus species inhabited the steppes of Argentina (and adjacent parts of South America) in the late Pleistocene".
Holste, M., J. M. Ruth, and J. C. Eitniear (2014). King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/nb.kinvul1.01