Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), also known as turkey buzzards, or just buzzards, get a bad wrap because of their wrinkly, bald faces and proclivity toward eating carrion. These birds are not exactly elegant like raptors or brilliantly colored like songbirds. But vultures are still fascinating. Plus, they play a vital role in the environment.
Turkey vultures are often referred to as nature's garbage disposal. They feed almost exclusively on carrion - primarily mammals. However, they will also eat the carcasses of reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and other birds.
With a broad range stretching from southern Canada to the tip of South America, what carrion these birds are eating depends on their region. We will dive into the specifics throughout this article!
A flock of turkey vultures feeding on a green turtle
Turkey vultures are opportunistic feeders in the wild. The birds scavenge and eat as they come across a meal. They prefer fresh carrion but will eat a decaying carcass when necessary. A large portion of the vulture’s diet consists of wild and domestic mammals - ranging from small rodents to large ungulates, such as deer or a deceased cow. Turkey vultures also eat other birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.
Depending on the regions, non-mammal food sources could include dead alligators, turtles, snakes, frogs, fish, mussels, shrimp, grasshoppers, or snails. Turkey vultures also consume plant matter. Typically, though, vegetation and insects are eaten inadvertently as these birds feed on carrion. However, records show that vultures occasionally eat plants (usually rotten fruits such as pumpkins, coconuts, or berries) and insects intentionally when carrion is hard to come by.
The turkey vulture’s diet is similar in both North and South America. They still primarily eat mammals but have a slightly different selection - monkeys, anteaters, and capybara are among the animals vultures will eat in their South American range.
A turkey vulture feeding on a roadkill raccoon
Turkey vultures are successful desert dwellers. They eat carrion almost exclusively, of which there is no shortage even in the desert. Common meals for vultures residing in this habitat may include deer, coyotes, foxes, snakes, and lizards. Desert turkey vultures will also eat a variety of birds, such as roadrunners, various raptors, and ravens.
Carrion remains the turkey vulture's primary food source throughout winter. The species these scavengers eat may vary slightly with the seasons but generally remain the same - rodents, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, and deer are among the most common.
Vultures with breeding ranges north of the southern United States typically migrates south for winter. These birds may have a slightly different winter menu that includes more desert or wetland and swamp carrion.
A turkey vulture eating carrion in the winter
In the summer months, turkey vultures frequently feast on roadkill, including deer, opossums, raccoons, and snakes. They will also eat other birds, amphibians, and fish.
Diet can vary slightly based on region. For example, vultures in the southeast US will have opportunities to eat alligators and other swamp-dwelling animals. Turkey vultures in South America have access to the carcasses of monkeys, anteaters, sloths, capybara, and more.
Turkey vultures will eat almost anything as long as it is dead. Wild and domestic mammals make up a large portion of the bird’s diet. Carcasses frequently consumed by the turkey vulture include various rodents, rabbits, coyotes, large ungulates (i.e. deer, elk, domestic cattle), snakes, frogs, fish, and other birds.
Turkey Vulture in flight, searching for food
Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, which they use to locate carrion. These birds often scavenge and feed in groups. Several turkey vultures and other scavenging birds will gather around the same carcass to eat.
Turkey vultures do not kill their prey and likely could not do so even if they were so inclined. Despite their size, these vultures are not very powerful. Their feet do not have the crushing power of a raptor's talons. Plus, they do not fly very swiftly.
Turkey vultures are adapted to eat carrion rather than hunt and kill prey. They have strong beaks capable of tearing the toughest animal hide.
Turkey vulture feasting on a dead cormorant
Turkey vultures are opportunistic feeders, meaning they eat as they find food. These birds can consume up to twenty pounds of meat per day. They typically spend daylight hours languidly soaring the skies, scavenging for their next meal.
When a turkey vulture’s young first hatch, they are mainly fed regurgitated food by both parents. After one or two weeks, the nestlings begin eating solid food. One of the adults will return to the nest with carrion and tear the meat into strips small enough for the young to consume.
A group of turkey buzzards perched on a branch
Turkey vultures drink water but do not need to do so frequently. To obtain the liquid, a vulture dips its bill into the water source, then opens and closes its mouth rapidly while lifting the head and moving its tongue back and forth to swallow.
Turkey vultures are primarily carnivorous. They occasionally eat plant matter, but this usually occurs inadvertently while the birds eat carrion. When meat is scarce, vultures will occasionally eat vegetation such as rotten fruits.
Close up of a Turkey vulture, looking up from feeding
Turkey vultures will tear rubber, but they do not consume it. Why vultures behave in this way is unknown, but there are a couple of theories. One involves certain compounds in rubber that could attract the birds. The other theory is that the vultures are training - improving their ability to tear tough meat quickly so they can be competitive with other vultures grouped around a carcass.
Turkey vultures do not kill and eat live cats. On the other hand, if a cat is dead, a vulture will eat it.
Vultures will not kill and eat live dogs. They feed on carrion, never eating anything still alive.
Vultures are large and look intimidating, but they do not attack people. They only feed on animals that are already dead, making them harmless to living creatures.
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