Carrion birds are scavengers that eat already dead and even decaying meat from other animals. Meat is only considered carrion if it died from something besides the animal eating it post-mortem. Other terms you can use interchangeably with carrion include:
For some carrion birds, already dead remains are just about the only thing they eat. For others, it is a part of their diet when times are tough or when they simply find a good dead meal to snack on. The following are some of the most notorious carrion-eating birds.
The phrase “the vultures are circling” has become synonymous with something or someone’s imminent demise or simply a bad omen. Vultures fly in a circular pattern when they can see that another animal has made a kill but are waiting for the initial predator to finish their meal. They also circle when trying to get a good view of something. They may be trying to make sure that what is in their sights is actually the meal they are looking for.
There are actually 23 species of vultures, including condors. The ones stereotypically shown in cartoons and movie scenes have bald heads without any feathers. However, there are a few vulture species that do have some feathers on their heads.
Vultures are the only animal species that only eat carrion. They never kill healthy animals, but they might kill an animal that is clearly on its way out the door to make the meal ready more quickly. They often wait for another animal to make the kill and then swoop in to feed on what remains. They also enjoy battlefields. One species of vulture, the mountain-dwelling bearded vulture, actually specializes in eating animal bones.
Because they prefer to eat meat that is already dead, they have some evolutionary advantages that prevent infections. For example, some experts believe that the lack of feathers on their heads in most species keeps their faces and necks cleaner and helps them to avoid infections. Additionally, their stomach acid is very acidic and kills toxins that can be found in rotting meat, including anthrax and botulism. Some vulture species also release their urine down their legs, which helps to kill bacteria that can accumulate there due to walking around dead animals.
2. Buteos: Buzzards And Hawks
While they are often considered to be in the same category, buzzards and vultures are actually different species. It is a bit confusing because there are actually several bird species called buzzards that are in different families and genera. Additionally, the animal genus that is often considered true buzzards, buteo, also includes some hawk species. To make it even more confusing, turkey vultures are sometimes referred to as buzzards in local slang in some areas of the United States.
The same is true for hawks. Many hawk species are in the buteo genus, but there is also a whole other family, Accipitridae, that also has many birds called hawks, in addition to eagles and harriers. To make it more confusing, the genus buteo is actually in this family of birds of prey.
So what is the difference between a buzzard and a hawk? “Old world” buteos are buzzards, and “new world” buteos are hawks. What does that mean? Old world birds are species that are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. New world birds are those that are native to North America and some Pacific Islands. The terms old world and new world are more indicative of human views of bird species as the world changed through colonization rather than whether a species is older or newer. There are also old world and new world vultures.
Birds in the buteo genus range from 12 to 28 inches long with wingspans between 26 and 63 inches, depending on the species. Buzzards and hawks mostly prey on live animals such as rodents and other small mammals. However, when times are lean, an already dead animal will make a fine meal for a bird in the genus buteo.
3. Crested Caracara
The crested caracara is the only remaining member of a genus of birds called caracara. There used to be another species, the Guadalupe caracara, that is now extinct. The crested caracara measure about 19 to 23 inches long with a wingspan of up to 51 inches. Unlike other birds of prey, this species prefers to find meals by walking around instead of flying. If they do have to fly, they take a direct route and do not soar in wind drafts like vultures or buteos. They are pretty aggressive and have no problem stealing a meal of carrion from a larger bird like a vulture.
While its hooked beak makes it resemble a hawk, the crested caracara is actually in the falcon family, and it is the only bird in this family that builds a nest out of collected materials. Another name for this species is the Mexican Eagle.
4. Bald Eagles
The bald eagle became a famous symbol of the United States, perhaps because it is one of only two eagle species in all of North America. These birds are not actually bald, like vultures. They do have white feathers on their heads. However, in older dialects of english, bald could also mean white-headed. This species is quite exceptional for many reasons. They build the largest tree-based nests of any animal species in the world. Their nests can be up to 8 feet wide and 13 feet deep. Their nests can weigh more than 1 ton.
Like many other birds of prey, bald eagles soar on air currents to view the area below and find meals. They dive at amazing speeds of up 99 miles per hour when they spot their next meal. They mostly dine on fish but also eat other birds and small mammals. They are not opposed to making the kill themselves, but much of their meals are carrion or even stolen from other predatory animals. Adult bald eagles are more likely to kill themselves, with younger bald eagles more likely to eat carrion or steal another animal’s kill.
Other types of eagles that also eat carrion include the African fish eagle, the golden eagle, and the eastern imperial eagle.
5. Crows And Ravens
Crows are black birds in the genus corvus. Ravens are certain larger crow species in the same genus. For some reasons crows, and especially ravens have a reputation for being creepy or associated with death. Perhaps that is why the names for a group of ravens includes “a treachery”, “an unkindness”, and “a conspiracy”. The name for a group of crows includes “a murder”. However, for both, most people would just say “a flock” in modern terms.
Crows are some of the world’s smartest birds and animals in general. They have been seen using tools and building tools as well. Some crows have also been seen playing in the wild, which is another marker of intelligence. They are considered to be at least as smart as some other non-human primates.
There are 45 species in this genus. They range from just 13 inches long to up to 28 inches long.
Corvus birds eat a lot of carrion, so they tend to follow around predatory animals like coyotes and wolves. Once they see that a kill has been made or will happen soon, they call to the other birds in their flock to let them know a meal may happen soon. The connection between ravens and wolves is especially strong. If a raven finds an injured animal, it can put out a call that will draw wolves to finish the job. The wolves do not harm the ravens and generally allow them to feed freely from the kill.
In addition to carrion, corvids eat other birds, fruit, nuts, seeds, mollusks, worms, frogs, eggs, and mice.
Also known as seagulls and mews, these sea-faring birds are known for being cunning scavengers that eat carrion as well as your beach snacks if you’re not careful. There are more than 50 species of gulls. Most gull species are well known for their loud squawking sounds and characteristic look with a white or grey body with black markings on the head or wings. Some species of gull are very smart. For example, the herring gull has been known to use tools to catch fish. Other gull species have caught prey much bigger than themselves. They have been observed landing on whales and pecking at their flesh while they are surfacing.
Depending on the species, gulls range in length from 11 inches to 30 inches. They live in highly social groups. In terms of food, they are generalists and will eat just about anything. They eat alive and dead fish and other marine animals, insects, rodents, eggs, seeds, fruit, dead animals (carrion), human garbage, reptiles, amphibians, and in some cases, other birds. They can get their food in the water, on land, or in the air. Some species of seagulls often take their meal from another predator who has already killed it. They are also known for picking up shellfish like mussels and clams and flying high to drop them onto a rock to split it open.
One unique fact about gulls is that they are monogamous and mate for life!
Terns are in the same taxonomic family as gulls, laridae. Most species of terns are smallish birds with grey backs, white stomachs, and black heads, although some species do have slightly different coloring. There are more than 45 species of terns. These are water birds, and they typically live in coastal regions near the sea, near rivers, or in wetlands. They often hunt by hovering over the water and diving in to catch fresh fish. Terns that live at sea often follow porpoises and bonitos that drive prey closer to the surface. Some tern species also eat insects and marine invertebrates.
It doesn’t seem that carrion is a favored meal of terns, but they will eat it. More study is needed to see under what conditions terns prefer to eat carrion. One scientist wrote about a Caspian tern feeding on roadkill in Everglades National Park in the Wilson Bulletin of Ornithology in 1966.
Skuas are another genus of sea-faring birds. There are 7 species in total. They are often dark in color with lighter markings in white or grey. In the winters, skuas rely almost solely on taking meals from other predators. This behavior is called kleptoparasitism. Some species of skuas also make live kills of birds much larger than they are, such as grey herons. Others eat land animals such as lemmings. Birds that nest in arctic locations also feast on penguin eggs and penguin chicks. In addition to this wide range of both live and dead food, skuas have also been observed drinking milk straight from a nursing elephant seal’s teat.
9. Marabou Stork
One nickname for this bird is the undertaker. It is not only because it loves to eat carrion, but also it’s shape and coloring resemble someone wearing a long black cloak. Similar to vultures, these birds lack feathers on their head. Again, experts believe this is an evolutionary advantage that prevents the head from getting too dirty with blood and bacteria from their dead meals. Besides eating mostly carrion, Marabou storks will also eat pretty much any other animal that it can swallow, including other birds like flamingos, pigeons, and cormorants. They eat carrion by following vultures around because vultures can more easily tear apart meat. Then they feed on the scraps.
During their breeding season, marabou stork eating habits change. The storks eat live prey and take it back to their nest to share with their young.
10. Snowy Sheathbill
These white birds can get dirty after feeding on carrion. However, that doesn’t stop them! The snowy sheathbill is a smallish bird about 16 inches long. They spend more than 85% of their time on the hunt for food or eating the food. These birds eat almost anything, including carrion and other animals’ feces. They have even eaten tapeworms from carrion intestines and spilled regurgitated food meant for penguin chicks. They do not have webbed feet because they find their food on land, not in the water, although they may be seen flying in coastal areas.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Richard G Smith/Shutterstock.com
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What are carrion birds?
Carrion birds are scavengers that eat already dead and even decaying meat from other animals.
What is carrion?
Meat is only considered carrion if it died from something besides the animal eating it post-mortem.
What are other terms for carrion?
Other terms you can use interchangeably with carrion include carcass, roadkill, and offal.
What are some carrion eating birds?
Carrion-eating birds include eagles, vultures, hawks, buzzards, gulls, terns, crows, ravens, and more.
Why do vultures circle?
Vultures fly in a circular pattern when they can see that another animal has made a kill, but are waiting for the initial predator to finish their meal. They also circle when they are trying to get a good view of something. They may be trying to make sure that what is in their sights is actually the meal they are looking for.
What is the only animal that solely eats carrion?
Vultures are the only animal species that only eat carrion.
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- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gull
- Cornell University, Available here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Crested_Caracara/overview#
- Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/buzzard
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven