Do Turkey Vultures Eat Live Animals? Examining the Evidence of Predation by Black Vultures

One of the most fascinating facts about the turkey vulture is what it eats. It’s no secret that they consume dead animals, but not many people are aware of where, when, or what kind of carcasses they prefer to eat. If you’re interested in knowing what the turkey vulture eats, continue reading. Table of Contents.

The turkey vulture feeds nearly exclusively on carrion. They consume animal carcasses of all shapes and sizes, including mice, minnows, cows, and even washed-up whale carcasses. Due to its exceptional sense of smell, the turkey vulture can locate even shrews on the forest floor in densely forested areas. Turkey vultures are opportunistic hunters that take advantage of opportunities presented by the changing seasons and the natural world.

The question of whether turkey vultures eat live animals is a complex one, with conflicting evidence and ongoing debate among experts. While these birds are primarily scavengers, feeding on carrion and decaying matter, there have been reports of them attacking and consuming live prey, particularly in recent years. This article delves into the available information, analyzing the evidence for and against turkey vulture predation to shed light on this intriguing topic.

Turkey Vultures: Primarily Scavengers with Opportunistic Predatory Behavior

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are large birds of prey known for their distinctive red heads and black bodies. They are found throughout North and South America, playing a crucial role in the ecosystem as scavengers Their highly acidic digestive system allows them to consume carrion and decaying matter that would otherwise pose a health hazard, effectively cleaning the environment.

Despite their primary role as scavengers, turkey vultures have been observed engaging in opportunistic predation. This means they will occasionally attack and kill live animals particularly those that are weak, injured or newborn. This behavior is more common among black vultures (Coragyps atratus), a closely related species that shares the same habitat with turkey vultures.

Evidence for Turkey Vulture Predation:

  • Farmer Reports: Farmers in various regions have reported instances of turkey vultures attacking and killing livestock, particularly calves and lambs. These reports often describe the vultures targeting vulnerable animals during birth or shortly after.
  • Scientific Observations: Some scientific studies have documented cases of turkey vultures preying on live animals. One study in Argentina observed black vultures attacking and killing weak or injured cattle. Another study in Florida documented turkey vultures preying on newborn lambs.
  • Video Evidence: Videos circulating online appear to show turkey vultures attacking and consuming live animals, further supporting the possibility of predatory behavior.

Evidence Against Turkey Vulture Predation:

  • Expert Opinions: Several ornithologists and wildlife biologists argue that turkey vultures primarily scavenge and rarely engage in predation. They point out that most reports of attacks involve black vultures, which are more aggressive and opportunistic predators.
  • Lack of Empirical Data: Critics of the predation hypothesis argue that there is a lack of robust scientific data to support claims of widespread turkey vulture predation. They emphasize the need for more rigorous studies to quantify the frequency and impact of such behavior.
  • Alternative Explanations: Some experts suggest that turkey vultures may be attracted to already dying or injured animals, mistakenly appearing to be predators. They argue that the vultures’ presence near carcasses does not necessarily indicate predation.

The Debate Continues: Weighing the Evidence

The evidence for and against turkey vulture predation presents a complex picture. While anecdotal reports and some scientific observations suggest that these birds can engage in opportunistic predation, experts remain divided on the extent and significance of this behavior. Further research is needed to definitively determine the frequency and impact of turkey vulture predation on various animal populations.

Factors Influencing Predatory Behavior:

Several factors may influence the likelihood of turkey vultures engaging in predatory behavior:

  • Food Availability: When carrion is scarce, turkey vultures may become more desperate and turn to live prey as a food source.
  • Vulnerability of Prey: Weak, injured, or newborn animals are more susceptible to attacks by opportunistic predators like turkey vultures.
  • Habitat and Environmental Conditions: The availability of suitable nesting and roosting sites, as well as the presence of other predators, can influence turkey vulture behavior.

The question of whether turkey vultures eat live animals remains a subject of debate and ongoing research. While evidence suggests they can engage in opportunistic predation, particularly on vulnerable animals, more data is needed to fully understand the extent and impact of this behavior. Factors such as food availability, prey vulnerability, and habitat conditions likely play a role in influencing predatory behavior. Further research is crucial to provide a definitive answer and inform effective management strategies.

The turkey vulture is the ultimate scavenger

Scavengers, by definition, are animals that have adapted to live by eating dead animals rather than by directly killing them.

Most scavengers are meat-eaters. They can occasionally function as predators, but only in specific situations, like when there is a shortage of food or when they are dealing with almost-dead prey.

The turkey vulture is the ultimate definition of a scavenger. They are well-suited for eating dead animals. Turkey vultures can detect and identify carrion from above thanks to their keen sense of smell and vision.

The turkey vulture has weaker talons and beaks than other predatory birds because it does not require strong, sharp talons or beaks for hunting. They are bald because it keeps bits of potentially pathogenic bacterial-infected carrion from adhering to their heads.

Regional diet variation of the turkey vulture’s diet

As would be expected, the turkey vulture’s diet varies by state and consists of the following animal carcasses:

  • California: Reptiles, rabbits, cattle.
  • Texas: Rabbit, reptiles, birds.
  • Wisconsin: Cattle, deer, skunks.
  • Ontario: Poultry, squirrels, invertebrates.
  • Pennsylvania: Poultry, deer, cattle.
  • Virginia: Poultry, sheep, moles.

Why Don’t Vultures Eat Live Prey?


Do vultures eat animals that are alive?

It’s not just farm animals. Small pets may be at risk too. The birds can be valuable contributors to the ecosystem, disposing cleanly of animal carcasses. But their increased numbers have made them more desperate for food in other forms — even alive.

Will turkey vultures attack my dog?

Do vultures attack people or pets? No. Vultures have evolved to eat dead animals and have no reason to attack a live human or pet. However, if cornered or handled, they may bite or vomit.

Do turkey vultures eat chickens?

If provided with the opportunity, vultures will kill young or fully-grown ducks and chickens, as well as their eggs. They will often begin feeding on young or sick poultry by pecking the eyes and nose, navel, and vent. They have blinded birds by pecking out their eyes, even when they do not kill the birds they attack.

Do turkey vultures eat rodents?

According to studies that examined the pellets regurgitated by turkey vultures, its diet includes carrion from common animals without discrimination based on size. Turkey vultures eat “prey” that ranges from the size of a mouse to the size of a cow.

Do turkey vultures eat cats?

Turkey vultures do not kill and eat live cats. On the other hand, if a cat is dead, a vulture will eat it. Do turkey vultures eat live dogs?

Where do turkey vultures live?

One of three species in the genus Cathartes of the family Cathartidae, the turkey vulture ranges from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. It inhabits a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, shrublands, pastures, and deserts.

What do turkey vultures eat?

They may rarely feed on plant matter, shoreline vegetation, pumpkin, grape, juniper, coconut and other crops, live frogs, live insects and other invertebrates. In South America, turkey vultures have been photographed feeding on the fruits of the introduced oil palm.

Do turkey vultures eat dead animals?

For example, Turkey Vultures in deserts may eat more reptiles, whereas those living in farmlands may eat dead animals associated with farms. On rare occasions, this bird also kills and eats small animals but only when the prey are in situations where they can’t escape or defend themselves.

Leave a Comment