image of black vulture, dead animal and a text saying: birds that eat dead animals

Birds That Eat Dead Animals

Written by: Annemarie Dutton
Last updated on:
image of Black Vulture

This article has been reviewed by veterinarian Sara Ochoa

Birds Eating Dead Animals – Undertakers Of Mother Nature

Birds that eat dead animals conjure up images of a hunched back vulture, black feathers, and featherless head and neck.  Various birds actually do just that -feed on dead animals.

They are scavenger or carrion birds.

Even though picking up and eating rotting carcasses is not appetizing to us, scavenging is a critical part of the ecosystem. Without scavengers, dead carcasses would rot on the ground and contaminate our food and water sources – causing serious diseases in people and livestock.

This article will look at ten scavenger birds that eat dead animals, but first, let’s get more insight into carrion birds.

What Is Carrion?

Carrion means the decaying flesh of a dead body, especially as food for scavenging animals.  

Depending on the size of the carcass and how much activity is around it, other omnivorous birds such as jays, pigeons, roadrunners, and hoopoes may also devour carrion. Even seabirds, such as fulmars, may scavenge carrion from beached carcasses.

Ten of the most common scavenger birds include:

Black Vulture

As mentioned previously, the birds that people associate with carrion are vultures.  The Black Vulture is a frequent scavenger. It has a black face, chest, and body, as its name suggests. These vultures are primarily found in Central and South America but can be found in the southern United States.

Black Vultures almost exclusively eat carrion, but they will also eat any eggs or newborn animals.

These birds often rely on their eyesight to find meals, though they sometimes follow other vultures.

Egyptian Vulture

Unlike the Black Vulture, the Egyptian Vulture is attractive to the eye and primarily eats carrion. 

Like other vultures, this species is opportunistic and will eat small birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Egyptian Vultures use tools to get their meals. 

They use rocks to break open eggs or roll up twigs for nests. Even though vultures sound like nasty animals, they are highly intelligent.

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Hooded Vulture

image of Hooded Vulture

Whereas the Egyptian Vulture was pretty and the Black Vulture at least cool-looking, the Hooded Vulture looks menacing. This vulture lives in Sub-Saharan Africa, but you can find it throughout the continent.

Hooded Vultures primarily only eat carrion. Hooded Vultures often eat dog carcasses and other large animals, even elephant carcasses. 

This vulture is critically endangered because it has lost 85% of its population over the last 50 years. Hunting, poisoning, and habitat loss are the main culprits for this sharp decline.

The Griffon Vulture

The Griffon Vulture has many names. Some people call it the Eurasian Griffon, often confusing it  with the Rupples Griffon Vulture, a completely different type with short tail feathers, white feathers, and broad wings.

Just like the other vultures, Griffon Vultures feed primarily on carrion. In contrast to many other vultures, Griffon Vultures stay far away from humans and often nest in high cliffs for easy flying access since they like to soar over open areas.

Turkey Vulture

When most people think of a vulture in the United States, they think of the Turkey Vulture. It is considered the most widespread vulture in the Western Hemisphere.

Turkey Vultures span most of the Western Hemisphere, including South America, Central America, and the United States. You can find Turkey Vultures in Canada, though they are less common there than in the rest of the hemisphere. 

Condor

The Condor is a common name for two types of vultures, the Andean Condor and the California Condor.  Condors have large wings that they soar on while scoping out meals.

Condors primarily eat carrion, but they are opportunistic and will eat just about anything they can find.

Crested Caracara

The Crested Caracara is a beautiful bird of prey within the Falcon family. This bird is primarily in South America, but it also creeps into the southernmost United States.

Crested Caracaras are known to be opportunistic raptors that are almost always on the hunt. These birds primarily eat carrion and steal from other raptors. 

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Bald Eagle

image of Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles represent strength and freedom for the United States, but this majestic bird can choke on decaying carcasses.

During the summer, Bald Eagles catch fresh fish on their own, but they will steal dead fish from other animals.

During the winter especially, Bald Eagles kick their scavenging up a notch and eat carrion. Bald Eagles eat carrion and act as scavenger birds, no matter how majestic they may look.

African Fish Eagle

Another eagle that is known to scavenge is the African Fish Eagle. 

At first glance, it looks a lot like the Bald Eagle, but these eagles can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Much like the Bald Eagle, the African Fish Eagle hangs out by water so that it can eat fish, hence its name. 

African Fish Eagles hunt on their own, but they are known to steal fish from other birds, classifying them as scavengers.

Crow

The last scavenger on our list is the Crow. There are many types of Crows around the globe, and they have one thing in common: they scavenge for food. 

Crows are so prone to savaging for carrion that one species is named the Carrion Crow.

Risks Of Carrion To Birds

Dead carcasses can be an easy food source for many birds, but carrion is not without risks. Depending on how the animal died and how long it has been dead, hazards include:

  • Disease transmission: 

Excessive bacteria, insects, or contamination from the feces of previous carrion-eaters can cause disease.

  • Lead contamination: 

Birds may inadvertently get lead poisoning if they ingest any lead pellets from previously hunted offal.

  • Poisoning: 

A carcass that has been poisoned as a trap for unwanted predators or contaminated with pesticides.

  • Attacks by other predators: 

Other predators competing for food may be drawn by the scent of the decaying carcass, potentially causing casualties.

  • Vehicle collisions: 

When feeding on carcasses on roadways, birds can get hit by traffic because they are too stuffed or immersed in their meal to fly away in time.

Sources Of Carrion For Scavenger Birds

Carrion can come from many sources. It can be dead animals, from small rodents to larger mammals such as whales. 

Scavengers do not discriminate about where they get their next meal. Sources of carrion include:

  • Predator kills:  

Flocks of scavenging birds may chase away lone predators. They may also feed on an abandoned kill after the hunting predator has moved on.

  • Hunting discards

Hunting animals’ internal organs or unwanted pieces left behind by hunters are food for carrion-seeking birds, including wounded animals that die before a hunter claims them.

  • Vehicle kills 

Roadkill can occur anywhere, from highways and interstates to dirt roads, and is fodder for scavenging animals, including bears, raccoons, and birds.

  • Accidental deaths

Animals that die from accidents, such as window collisions, net tangles, or similar causes, can become carrion.

  • Natural deaths

Animals that die of old age, disease, injuries, premature birth, or other causes can become carrion.

  • Beach strandings

Marine animals stranded on beaches will become carrion for scavenging gulls, shorebirds, corvids, and raptors.

Wrapping Up

As carrion ages, it is often accompanied by a rotten, foul smell caused by bacterial growth, making the meat unfit for human consumption. 

Animals and birds, however, have different digestive systems and better tolerance for old meat and can often feed on a carcass even if it has decayed significantly..

Although it may be stomach-turning to think of eating carrion, we should be thankful for these birds. They keep our communities clean and aesthetic and ensure that bacteria does not infiltrate our ecosystems.

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