Turkey Vultures, with their bare red heads and broad wingspans, are some of the most distinctive birds of the sky. But what do these scavengers feed on? How do they survive without hunting their own prey? In this article, we’ll delve into the dietary habits of Turkey Vultures and discover what these unique birds eat to survive and thrive. From roadkill to garbage, we’ll explore the surprising range of foods that make up the Turkey Vulture’s diet and the adaptations that make them such successful scavengers.
So come along and join us on this journey to uncover the secrets of the Turkey Vulture’s menu!
The diet of Turkey Vultures
Belonging to the family of the New World Vultures, the Turkey Vultures have been named after the turkey birds due to the similarity in their appearances. Just like the male Turkeys, the Turkey Vultures also possess a bald head surrounded by bare skin patches and predominantly black plumage.
Spread across all the Americas, these vultures are the most widespread members of their family. They have five recognized subspecies, out of which only one is found in the U.S.: Eastern Turkey Vultures (C. a. septentrionalis).
When learning about Turkey Vultures (or any vulture in general), you might’ve come across the phrase Nature’s garbage disposal. Does it make you wonder why these birds are called that? The answer to it lies in their diet.
As you might know already, Turkey Vultures, much like other vulture species, are scavengers, which means they feed on the carcass of dead animals or birds. This is also why they can be found in diverse habitats; these birds are always on the lookout for food and don’t mind traveling far and wide for it if they have to.
Does this mean these raptors have no preference for food? While they do have a preference, which is for fresh carrion, in times of need, they’ll also feed on decaying carcasses if they need to.
The diet of Turkey Vultures is primarily made up of mammal carcasses (both wild and domestic), including creatures as small as rodents and as large as ungulates. The domestic animals that generally end up being food for these birds of prey include domestic cats and dogs, sheep, cattle, poultry, pigs, and horses.
Among the wild, they’re often found feeding on the carcass of rats, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, shrews, moles, and opossums.
However, mammals do not make up their diet exclusively. These vultures will also feed on the carcass of dead birds, reptiles, amphibians, and other invertebrates when there are slim pickings.
The availability of food in their surroundings is an important factor to keep in mind in determining their diet.
For instance, the vultures inhabiting California commonly feed on cattle, rabbits, and reptiles, while those dwelling in Virginia can access dead moles, sheep, and poultry more easily. Skunks dominate the diet of Wisconsin’s Turkey Vultures, while in Pennsylvania, they’re often found indulging in a deer carcass.
Do Turkey Vultures eat garbage?
There has been a lot of debate over whether the diet of these vultures is restricted only to the carcass in the past.
But in recent years, it has been revealed that these scavengers have been spotted probing at trash cans looking for something to eat. Some studies also indicate that they feed on the dung of domestic – and at times even wild – animals in desperate times.
So, if a Turkey Vulture ends up finding their way around your garbage can, know that it must be looking for food.
What do Turkey Vultures eat in the desert?
As we mentioned earlier, Turkey Vultures can be found in diverse habitats; deserts are just one of these. And when it comes to deserts – vast stretches of dry sand with no water for miles – the survival of every living creature becomes tougher. This is obvious since deserts aren’t really known for their abundance of flora or fauna.
Does it make you wonder whether the Turkey Vultures inhabiting deserts have a difficult time searching for food as well? Rest assured, for the life of these vultures in the desert is much easier than any other creature.
Wondering how? Well, for all the disadvantages in deserts, they have no shortage of dying or dead things, which is exactly what the vultures thrive on.
The meals of Turkey Vultures dwelling in the desert mainly include coyotes, foxes, deer, and snakes. They’re also found feeding on other dead birds, such as roadrunners, ravens, and other raptors.
Do Turkey Vultures feed on anything that’s not dead?
The term scavenger is only used for those that feed on the dead. And because vultures are associated with this term, it’s natural to believe that their diet consists of all things dead. And it is indeed what happens most of the time.
However, on very rare occasions, these vultures might just need to kill and eat their prey. While they do not choose a healthy or fully-grown adult animal for this task, fledglings, sick, unwell, or old and aging individuals are often preyed upon.
Wondering why that is? Well, it is because while vultures belong to the Raptor family, they’re not nearly as powerful as the other members. Their specialty lies in feeding on the dead, and their physical characteristics are designed accordingly. Under such circumstances, preying on any being that can look after itself would be an impossible feat for the vultures.
Although rarely, their diet also extends to plant-based foods. In some numbered areas, you can also find these vultures feeding on pumpkins, coconuts, other crops, and shoreline vegetation. Photographs taken in South America indicate how some individuals living there show a keen interest in the oil palm fruits.
How do Turkey Vultures find food?
If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that Turkey Vultures aren’t active hunters. They’re even lazy in terms of flight, often relying on thermals so that they require as little wing-flapping as possible.
So, how do these lazy scavengers find food? This might come as a surprise to many, but these vultures rely on their sense of smell to find food. They seem to have mastered this ability and can smell a carcass from almost a mile away, which is highly unusual among the birds. Here’s how it works:
All of us possess an olfactory lobe in our brains, which helps us process different kinds of smells we intake. In the Turkey Vultures, this lobe is significantly larger than that of other animals; in other words, it means that they can smell much better and from a much farther distance than other birds or animals.
Ethanethiol is a distinctly-odored gas released from the carcass of a dead animal when the process of their decay begins. The odor of this gas is picked up by the Turkey Vultures as they fly low, foraging for food. Once they catch the whiff, they follow it to the source, where they feed on the carrion.
Because the talons of Turkey Vultures aren’t as strong as other birds of prey, they’re never seen carrying carcasses to their nest and prefer to feed on it then and there instead.
Do all vultures have a keen sense of smell?
Reading about Turkey Vultures’ foraging process might make one believe that it applies to all other vultures. But is that really true? No.
In truth, not all vultures share the same sense of smell. Some species, like the Condors, King Vultures, and Black Vultures, lack this sense and, therefore, follow the Turkey Vultures to their food source.
Examples of other vulture species with a strong sense of smell include the Forest and Savannah Vultures.
How often do Turkey Vultures need to eat?
Although it is fairly difficult to track the diet of Turkey Vultures in the wild, in captivity, these scavengers are known to consume about 140-200 grams (5-7 ounces) of the animal carcass in a single day.
Does this mean these birds need to eat every day? No, not really. Because dead animals make up their diet, it is obvious that the food supply will not be consistent for them. The vultures are well aware of this and, therefore, gorge whenever they can find food in abundance, eating up to 5-10 pounds at once. The extra food they consume is stored in their expandable crop.
Because of their additional food storage, Turkey Vultures needn’t eat every day and can survive without food for a week without showing any signs of stress. It is from their ninth day without food that these birds begin to lose body mass, and if they can’t find food for another week, you’ll start seeing the signs of starvation on their body.
What do baby Turkey Vultures eat?
Turkey Vultures are known to mate for life, much like many other vulture species. The breeding period of these scavengers varies according to their location. In the southern parts of the U.S., it falls between March and June, whereas northward, it starts later and can continue until August.
The female vultures generally lay two eggs at a time; these eggs take about 30-40 days to hatch, during which period both parents participate in their incubation. After the eggs hatch, the parents feed their fledglings regurgitated meat for the first couple of weeks. They try their best to find fresh carcasses around this time for the faster growth of their young ones.
Once the baby vultures are older than two weeks, they can start consuming solid food. The parents continue to bring them food for the next 8-10 weeks, after which they start learning how to forage on their own.
Did you know? While Turkey Vultures are caring parents, they’re often known to flee their nest when a threat comes knocking, leaving their fledglings defenseless in the face of danger.