In this article we will discuss a particular type of bird – the scavenger. Scavenging birds are birds that primarily feed on carrion, which is the fancy way of saying dead animals. It may sound a bit gruesome but these birds serve as crucial ecological players, recycling organic matter and returning nutrients to the ecosystem. Think of them as part of natures clean-up crew!
10 Birds That Eat Dead Animals
This article explores the world of avian scavengers, from soaring vultures to cunning crows. While there are many birds that eat dead animals around the word, we’ll focus here on species you can find in the United States.
1. Bald Eagle
Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
This first one might surprise you, but the majestic Bald Eagle will feed on dead animals. Bald eagles are primarily hunters that focus on catching fish like salmon and trout. But they also employ two other tactics for getting their food. One is stealing a catch from another bird like an osprey, or even other mammals.
Eating carrion is another strategy they can use for survival. Carrion is sometimes consumed when fresh, live catches are less available. But they can also just be in the right place at the right time for some easy pickings, like leftover fisherman’s bait or roadkill.
This adaptability in diet showcases the Bald Eagle’s ability to thrive in diverse environments, contributing to its status as a symbol of strength and resilience.
2. Black Vulture
Scientific Name: Coragyps atratus
The Black Vulture, a distinctive bird with dark plumage and a bald, gray-skinned face, primarily resides in the southern part of the United States in coastal states spanning from Delaware to Texas. They have been moving further north in recent years and have sometimes been spotted in New England.
These vultures like to hang out in small family groups, soaring high in the sky looking for food such as carcasses of poultry, cattle, raccoons, opossums and more. They often live in the same range as the next bird on this list, the turkey vulture. You can tell them apart easily because turkey vultures have pink faces while black vultures have gray faces.
Interestingly, black vultures don’t have a great sense of smell. So they can’t use their nose as effectively as turkey vultures to find dead animals. Rather, they soar higher in the sky than the turkey vultures and keep an eye out for them. If they see a turkey vulture has spotted a good carcass, they will follow it to the food site.
3. Turkey Vulture
Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
A cousin of the Black Vulture, the Turkey Vulture is identifiable by its pinkish-red face, bald head, and dark plumage. They are widespread across the country. One way to identify them while they are soaring above is to note their large dark body contrasting with the underside of their wings, which are gray along the edges. Like other vultures, the species flies high in the air searching for dead animals to feed upon.
Turkey vulture mainly use their sense of smell to find carrion. In fact, the part of the brain that processes smells is larger in this bird than most others. Like other vultures, their face is devoid of feathers because they use their hooked beak to tear and rip meat off the animal. This tends to get your face bloody and dirty, and would make any facial feathers really sticky and hard to clean.
4. California Condor
Scientific Name: Gymnogyps californianus
The California Condor is one of the largest birds that almost went extinct in the 1980s. Fortunately, conservationists brought the remaining groups in for a breeding program that was a huge success.
Still rare, the species can be found in several parts of California and near the Grand Canyon, flying about 2,000 feet above the ground looking for food. Another great tactic they use is watching other scavengers to find their next meal. The condor has dark feathers on its body, white under the wings, and a light pinkish-orange bald head.
Unlike vultures that are fairly comfortable around humans, condors avoid people and because of this, tend to not eat roadkill. They have a special throat pouch that can hold up to 3 pounds of food. This helps them take advantage of as much meat as they can when they come upon carrion, and they can stretch the food for 2-3 days before needing to find more.
5. American Crow
Scientific Name: Corvus brachyrhynchos
One of the most intelligent birds we know of is the crow. The American crow lives in rural, suburban, and urban areas all across the United States. In short, they’re very adaptable! Crows are also omnivorous, meaning they eat anything they can get their beaks on, including dead animals — and your french fries.
Their distinctive “caw-caw” alerts you to their presence, and they’re often found in groups. While carrion isn’t something crows seek out in particular, if it’s available and they’re hungry, it’s fair game.
6. Crested Caracara
Scientific Name: Caracara plancus
The Crested Caracara is a bird of prey that is found in the Americas, from the southern United States to northern Argentina. They have a varied diet that consists mainly of small animals, such as rodents, lizards, and insects, but they also eat carrion, fruit, and seeds. They are known for their scavenging behavior and will often feed on roadkill and other dead animals.
The large and stately looking Caracara has a black body, a cream colored neck with brown barring, and a dark brown cap. They have an orange, hooked beak with a pale blue tip. Their crest is made up of long, dark feathers that can be raised or lowered depending on the bird’s mood.
Crested Caracaras are social birds and are often seen in small groups or pairs. They are also known for their acrobatic flight, with the ability to soar high in the sky and perform complex aerial maneuvers. These birds have adapted to a wide range of habitats, including grasslands, savannas, and wetlands. They are also found in urban areas and agricultural fields, where they can scavenge for food.
7. Golden Eagle
Scientific Name: Aquila chrysaetos
Like the Bald Eagle, the golden variety is primarily a bird of prey. While bald eagles often focus on fish, golden eagles tend to focus on small to medium sized mammals like rabbits, prairie dogs and marmots. That said, this opportunistic bird wouldn’t pass up a convenient meal of carrion. Its strong beak and talons are perfect for not only catching meals, but ripping apart carrion.
You’ll find the Golden Eagle mainly in the western half of the United States. The species is easily identifiable by its chocolate brown plumage speckled with gold highlights. While bald eagles
8. Common Raven
Scientific Name: Corvus corax
Found across the midwest and western United States, many people mistake the Common Raven for the American Crow. In fact, it can be a bit hard to tell them apart. Aside from their similar looks, the pair have much in common in terms of diet. Common Ravens are omnivorous creatures, eating just about anything not nailed down, including insects, rodents, reptiles, garbage, and carrion on a regular basis.
They probably aren’t at the top of the pecking order when gathering at the carcass, but you’ll often see ravens alongside vultures vying for their share.
9. Red-tailed Hawk
Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
The Red-tailed Hawk, found all across the U.S., take advantage of the small to medium sized prey available in their environment. Reptiles, birds and mammals are all on the menu, often taken back to a perch to be eaten. Red-tailed hawks will readily take advantage of carrion when available, including roadkill.
Adults can be distinguished by their brick-red tail, and often have a band of dark brown bars across their belly.
10. Black-billed Magpie
Scientific Name: Pica hudsonia
Chiming in with a more colorful spectrum than many of the other carrion eaters is the Black-billed Magpie. This bird is in the same family as the crow and shares its omnivorous taste for just about everything.
Black-billed magpies have a black head, neck, and back with a white belly and side, and iridescent blue on its wings and tail. The species prefers semi-open land, frequenting the midwest on toward the west — avoiding the coast. Magpies feed on carrion, rodents, insects, eggs, vegetable scraps, nuts, and berries.
Kim is an avid bird watcher and owner in South Carolina. She loves identifying, studying, and feeding her feathered friends in their natural habitats. She also has first-hand experience as the owner of several species of exotic birds.