Birds are found in diverse shapes and sizes, as they’re all adapted to feed on certain food types and have specific ways of obtaining food.
Some birds dive into the water for fish and other marine creatures; others hop around looking for insects or seeds; raptors catch smaller birds after high-speed aerial pursuits, while others prefer to scavenge.
Scavenger birds are often viewed on bad terms because of their preferred food type and the way they eat. That’s because these are the types of birds that eat dead animals. Scavenging birds are either utterly reliant on dead creatures for food, or most of their diet comprises carrion.
They’re often seen foraging and fighting at carcasses – painting a rather unpleasant picture in the eyes of observers.
You’ll most likely see scavenger birds like vultures riding thermals, searching for carrion from above. If not, you can find them feasting on roadkill and carcasses or gathering at refuse dumps. Scavengers eat many types of dead animals, from large deer to small reptiles, as well as garbage and food scraps.
Most people don’t know that these scavengers are some of the most critical components of the environmental ecosystem. They are essential for ecological functioning because they speed up the decomposition process.
There are many types of scavengers, including vultures, eagles, crows, and ravens. The following article will describe some of the main species and varieties of scavengers, from the infamous vultures to the ocean-roaming Northern Giant Petrel!
What would an article about scavenging birds be without vultures? Vultures are some of the most well-known scavenging birds that almost exclusively feed on dead organisms they find with their excellent eyesight and smell.
Vultures are specialized to eat rotten, smelly meat due to adaptations that allow them to rip into the flesh and not get affected by diseases on the carcasses. Once the vultures arrive at a carcass, they can rip open the skin and other more complex parts using their sharp, powerful beaks.
They also eat bones, made possible by the barbs on their tongues. There is often a hierarchy of size at carcasses as the smaller vultures wait on the outskirts for the larger vultures to open the carcass and eat before they can get to the meat.
You’ll notice that all vultures have rather unsatisfying bald heads and necks. This adaptation prevents their feathers from becoming smothered in blood and germ-filled meat parts that would otherwise stick to their feathers. This protects them from carrying germs after reaching deep into carcasses.
Vultures prefer to eat large carcasses of animals like deer, bears, buffaloes, horses, and other large mammals. They aren’t very picky over their carrion, but vultures don’t eat dead vultures if other carrion is available.
Vultures are typically solitary creatures, but they are sometimes seen in pairs. It is common for them to be seen in large groups when attending to carcasses.
Many vulture species may assemble when a large carcass is found, and the largest species dominate the carcass. They often steal food from the smaller species.
The vultures are divided into two main groups – the Owl World and New World vultures.
The Old World Vultures occur in the area known as the “Old World,” which encompasses Europe, Asia, and Africa. On the other hand, New World vultures occur in the “New World” – the Americas.
The Old World Vutlures don’t smell as well as the New World vultures, but they have excellent vision that makes up for their poor sense of smell. They use their superior eyesight to locate dead animals in the environment.
While Old World vultures have excellent vision, New World vultures have an incredible sense of smell. They use their sense of smell to locate carcasses.
Old World vulture stomachs have acid containing an extremely low pH which kills any bacteria containing pathogens such as anthrax, botulism, cholera, and salmonella. On the other hand, New World Vultures have much less acidic stomach acids. They can still feed on carcasses containing pathogens because of the facial skin and intestinal microbiomes, which protect the vultures against pathogens.
The two groups of vultures may use different methods for coping with harmful bacteria, but they are both vital as they clean up the environment and prevent the spread of highly infectious diseases.
1.1 Lappet-faced Vulture
The Lappet-faced Vulture is a huge, primarily African vulture that belongs to the Accipitridae family. They are named after the loose skin (called lappets) on their pinkish faces.
These mighty Old World vultures feed on all parts of a carcass, from the flesh to the skin and bones. They can also be seen feeding at garbage sites, stealing food from other birds of prey, and sometimes killing smaller birds.
Lappet-faced Vultures mainly inhabit deserts, dry savannahs, and semi-arid areas. They typically occur in pairs but gather in large flocks when feeding on carcasses.
1.2 Andean Condor
The Andean Condor is an enormous New World vulture from the Cathartidae family. This monster raptor occurs in the Andes Mountains and along the Pacific coast of South America.
The Andean Condor holds the record for the largest flying bird when wingspan and weight measurements are combined. They grow to a wingspan of 10 ft 10 in (3.3 m) and weigh up to 33 lb (15 kg).
This massive black vulture has big white wing patches and a reddish head and neck. Like other New World Vultures, they find carrion using their superb sense of smell instead of vision which isn’t as strong.
As this condor is so huge, it is understandable that they prefer feeding on large carcasses of animals like horses, deer, cattle, and bears.
Due to their size, Andean Condors dominate carcasses and chase other scavengers away from carcasses.
2. Other Scavenging Birds
While vultures are the main scavenging birds, it is important to remember the species below.
2.1 Crested Caracara
The Crested Caracara is one of the most beautiful scavengers with colorful plumage, long-striding legs, and an impressive bill.
Crested Caracaras belong to the falcon family but behave more similarly to vultures. They are opportunistic feeders that scavenge on carrion and hunt their prey, including birds, mammals, insects, and fish.
Caracaras are even known to follow vehicles hoping to pick up scraps that people throw out windows or road kills. They are generally found in open habitats, prairies, scrub lands, farmlands, and deserts.
2.2 Bald Eagle
The Bald Eagle – the United States of America’s national bird, is a graceful creature that sours with might over the land below with a massive wingspan, exquisite eyesight, and powerful talons.
As with other eagles, Bald Eagles are potent hunters that hunt their own prey, such as mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and amphibians.
But did you know they’re opportunistic scavengers who don’t shy away from eating dead animals? Indeed, carrion has been estimated to comprise 24% of a Bald Eagle’s diet. They can frequently be seen scavenging at garbage dumps.
They are powerful creatures, and in North America, few birds dominate them at carcasses. They chase other scavengers away from carcasses.
They even scavenge from other birds by mobbing them with their immense size – forcing them to drop their prey, which they steal.
Bald Eagles feed on carrion more frequently in winter. You’ll even see them feeding on dead fish in rivers and following boats that leave scraps behind.
2.3 Marabou Stork
At first glance, most storks are elegant creatures that wade elegantly through the shallows and float effortlessly through the sky.
However, not all storks are built the same way. Take the Marabou Stork, for example. Marabou Storks are massive birds that look superficially like vultures due to some of their adaptations.
They have very long legs, huge sharp beaks, and long necks. Needless to say, they aren’t the best-looking birds, but they also play a crucial role in the environment.
They have bald heads and long, naked necks, making them perfect for scavenging. Do you see the resemblance with the vultures?
The reasons for these adaptations are the same as the vultures – to keep blood off their heads and prevent infection, and their beaks can tear rapidly into carcasses with hard skin.
They favor savannas and grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, where they are often seen feasting on carcasses alongside vultures.
They eat almost anything, from feces to dead animals and garbage.
2.4 Red-tailed Hawk
Hawks have exceptional vision and flying abilities – making them incredible hunters, but they’re also ideally suited to scavenging.
The species that scavenges frequently amongst the Buteo hawks is the Red-tailed Hawk. Like other hawks, Red-tailed Hawks are smaller than eagles, so they only usually eat smaller pieces of carrion – typically found along roadsides.
They usually rely more heavily on finding and killing live prey like small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.
You’ll typically see them feeding on dead animals like fish, deer, and foxes, to name a few. These are types of animals that they can’t usually feed on if they’re alive.
As is the case with eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, amongst others, tend to feed on carrion more frequently in winter when food becomes scarce, and they need to supplement caught prey with carrion.
Red-tailed Hawks are some of the larger birds of prey in North America, and in winter, they steal food from small raptors like Northern Harriers and Rough-legged Hawks.
2.5 Common Raven
Ravens are another group of birds you’ll frequently see scavenging at carcasses. They feed on insects, reptiles, and amphibians in addition to carrion.
Ravens often flock to garbage dumps, where they won’t refuse an opportunity for an easy meal.
Ravens have enormous beaks that are strong enough to eat flesh, while their claws are sharp enough to open up carcasses.
In Northern Europe, the Common Raven is seen as a symbol of death since they’re associated with dead animals.
It is said that the Common Raven is the most intelligent bird in the world. As such, ravens are opportunistic feeders that will feed on carrion when given the opportunity. This behavior becomes particularly common when little live prey exists in a particular area. They aren’t picky eaters. If they have to, they eat seeds and fruits.
Ravens sometimes follow humans and other animals, waiting for scraps to be dropped that they can dive onto.
2.6 Carrion Crow
Crows belong to the Corvus genus of the Corvidae family along with the ravens and consist of approximately 40 species worldwide. They are often very abundant and effective scavengers that eat dead animals. One species, notably the Carrion Crow, is even named after the type of food they prefer: carrion.
Crows are highly intelligent birds that scavenge in wild habitats and residential areas where they can collect scraps left lying around by humans.
They love feeding at landfill sites and working through garbage to find morsels of food. Their preferred carcasses are mammals and reptiles.
Crows like Carrion Crows are relatively small, so they don’t stand a chance of fighting a larger scavenger at a carcass alone. So they gather in numbers and overwhelm larger predators that can’t fight back against a group of corvids.
2.7 Eurasian Jackdaw
Another member of the Corvidae family is the Eurasian Jackdaw. Eurasian Jackdaws are small scavengers with grey and black plumage – found throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
Eurasian Jackdaws have relatively small beaks that are still strong enough to feed on carcasses. However, they’re more suited to scavenging small pieces of food at garbage dumps and landfill sites. They often feed in big flocks and congregate in one area to feed together.
They eat almost anything they can find, usually feeding on the ground.
2.8 Herring Gull
Gulls are a widespread group of birds belonging to the Laridae family. They eat just about anything, and they’re incredibly adaptable creatures that have learned to take advantage of the scraps left behind by humans.
Over the years, gulls like the Herring Gull have become familiar at beachfront restaurants and hotels, where they scavenge scraps and even steal food from people sitting at tables. They even walk up to people to steal food or pick up scraps.
They have also learned to hang around at garbage sites as it’s more energy efficient to wait for food to be dropped on the ground than to fly around and find their own food.
Naturally, they eat fish caught by diving or skimming the water’s surface. However, they also scavenge on carrion and take live insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and birds. They also steal food from smaller birds by harassing them.
The populations of Herring Gulls have been decreasing, and it is thought that the gulls are becoming more common in urban environments because they can find and scavenge food efficiently. However, the main reason is that the fish stocks they feed in the wild are decreasing drastically due to overfishing – forcing them to find additional food sources.
2.9 Parasitic Jaeger
The Parasitic Jaeger, also known as the Arctic Skua, is one of the most prominent pirates of the sea. They belong to the Skua family, who are the ultimate kleptoparasites! Kleptoparasitism is a strategy used by some animals where an animal steals food from another animal through constant harassment and attack.
Outside of the breeding season, these large seabirds love bullying other birds. They spend their time at sea, where they harass gulls, terns, and other seabirds.
They are often highly hostile, attacking gulls and terns frequently to get their catch. They even go as far as killing other birds to get their food.
They hardly ever hunt for themselves as they get most of their food by robbing other species of their catches and scavenging them.
2.10 Red Kite
Kites are sneaky scavengers found in parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
The Red Kite is a medium-sized European bird of prey with a tiny beak and relatively weak talons. They aren’t designed to tear through flesh or pick up heavy carrion.
Red Kites hunt in open areas such as fields, where they catch insects, reptiles, and other small creatures. However, they are also opportunistic scavengers that prefer to feed on small pieces of carrion. They even risk their lives as they swoop down to pick up small pieces of roadkill in front of oncoming traffic.
2.11 Northern Giant Petrel
Giant Petrels are massive seabirds that weigh more than small albatrosses. The Northern Giant Petrel belongs to the family Procellariidae in the genus Macronectes with one other species, the Southern Giant Petrel.
These seabirds are dark brown overall with red-tipped tubular beaks. They occur in the southern ocean region.
They are immense scavengers that typically feed on seal carcasses and scraps left behind from fishing boats. They also feed on birds like penguins as well as fish and squid that they capture.
Birds scavenge in many ways, filling an important ecological niche. They can be as huge as vultures that rely solely on carcasses for food or as small as the Eurasian Jackdaw that feeds on tiny scraps of food.
The other side of scavenging belongs to birds like the skuas that scavenge food from other birds by harassing them, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism. Other birds, like eagles, crows, ravens, and gulls, also steal food from other birds.
Scavenging birds like vultures are vital for ecosystem functioning as they decompose carcasses. They’re also extremely crucial in preventing the spread of harmful diseases.
Unfortunately, the populations of many vulture species are in sharp decline due to persecution for food and the traditional medicine trade that uses body parts.