Do Vultures Eat Live Animals?

Written by: Annemarie Dutton
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Vulture Culture – Eating Animals Dead Or Alive

Despite their unsettling appearance and fearsome demeanor, vultures are relatively harmless birds. These birds are usually associated with ghoulish images of death, since 70 to 90 percent of their food source consists of scavenging carcasses of dead animals. 

We know that vultures eat carrion, but Do Vultures Eat Live Animals?

The answer is yes. But only when there is a shortage of carcasses. Vultures rarely hunt for healthy animals. Instead, they consume carrion as a primary food source.

The Black Vulture – The Aggressive Scavenger And Hunter

Certain vulture species can eat newly born lizards, turtles, frogs, or sometimes even chicks, while black vultures are one of the more aggressive types.

They eat eggs of other birds, turtles, and lizards.  But at times, they can even target, kill and eat the newborn young of larger mammals, including lambs, calves, goats, groundhogs, and other wild animals.

The Black Vulture diet consists primarily of carrion. They feed on carcasses of dead animals of all sizes. 

At times they eat eggs of other birds, turtles, and lizards and are even known to target, kill and eat the young of some birds, sea turtles, and even sometimes newborn young of larger mammals. 

Vultures will only hunt large mammals if no other carrion is available.  A vulture would rather eat a dying rodent than a large mammal.

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Why Vultures Primarily Feed On Carrion

Although vultures sometimes feed on live animals, they lack the means and motivation to do so more often.  Vultures have evolved for centuries to become specialists in eating the dead. 

Some of the reasons why vultures do not hunt prey include:

Vultures Have Chicken-like Feet

Nearly all birds of prey possess strong muscular feet with piercing talons to crush and tear apart prey with raw strength.

In contrast, vultures do not have powerful claws. They have elongated toes with blunt talons, arranged like chicken feet.

Vultures only use their feet for walking or  hopping. Even if a vulture hunts, it would be unable to hold down its prey.  

Lack Of Stealth And Swiftness

Most raptors hunt while relying on the element of surprise. They have mastered the art of stealth. 

For instance, a hawk vertically dives at high speed, grabs the shocked victim, and takes it to its nest.

Also, owls hunt in complete silence. Their thick feathers muffle the fluttering sounds. 

Though vultures have heavy wings that allow them to reach above 40,000 feet, flying instantly through flapping is quite a struggle for these birds. They don’t have the speed or the stealth to surprise any prey.

Hunting Instincts Versus Cowardness

While the old-world vulture species have excellent vision, most new-world vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell.  

These traits help vultures track rotting dead bodies before any other scavenger can. Vultures lack the boldness as well as hunting instincts of a predator.

So, in the face of danger, while an eagle will spread its wings and try to appear enticing, the vulture will vomit to distract its predator and to reduce its weight.  This reflex allows them to become airborne and flee the scene quickly.

Beak Strength

Vulture beaks have sharp edges to tear away bite-sized meat chunks which can cause significant damage to any animal if used the right way.

However, vulture beaks are not sharp enough to kill healthy prey in a single stroke. They must often wait for a carcass to soften before they can even poke through its skin.

Sometimes, they wait for other scavengers to rip open the dead

Availability Of Carrion

However, while all other resources are scarce, dead bodies are always available. 

Nature dictates that there is never a shortage of weak, dead, or dying animals.

Competition For Scavenging

In the wild, there is no penicillin. Instead, infection means an excruciating death. 

Most animals don’t come near the sick, much less the dead, and even scavengers avoid maggot-ridden flesh.

But vultures can ingest all sorts of dead animals without getting infected.  They don’t need to hunt, as they always have more exclusive carrion.

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How Are Vultures Adapted To Eat Dead Animals?

Vultures are highly specialized in eating the dead, and they can eat all sorts of dead meat, making them nature’s trash compactors.

Evolved Tracking Skills

Vultures can see a carcass from thousands of miles above the ground and can even see the thermal spectra of a living being.

Vultures can smell a rotting carcass from tens of miles away and can even track predators to snatch a fresh kill. 

Wildlife personnel often follow vultures to track dead elephants and arrest ivory poachers.

Physical Features

Almost all vultures have relatively small bald heads with elongated featherless necks.  This allows them to dip their faces inside a decaying carcass and not get unnecessary residues attached.

Also, vultures have protective eye membranes, and their chicken-like feet help them walk above dead bodies without much hindrance.

Gut Adaptations

Vultures can neutralize nearly all natural poisons.  Their stomach juice (pH<1) is acidic enough to corrode iron.

Vultures can easily kill toxins like botulism, anthrax, rabies, cholera, distemper, and even bubonic plague in their system. 

Their natural microbial flora also incapacitates certain pathogens. 40% of all harmful microbes are just left hanging inside the gut. 

Urohydrosis

Vultures urinate on themselves, thereby regulating their temperature through evaporative cooling.

However, vulture urine disinfects their legs because it has a high concentration of  uric acid.

Consequently, vultures get rid of any residual infectious agents from their feet, accumulated by walking on the dead bodies.  

Final Thought

As a final thought:  do vultures eat live humans?

The answer is a definite no.  Vultures will eat human remains but never a live human.  

Vultures are extremely cautious birds and will circle for hours above a dead body before swooping down for the feast, which helps vultures ensure that their food is already dead and not moving an inch and prevents chances of an almost dying animal putting up a fight and eating the vulture.

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