Black Vulture Food Habits

The black vulture’s food habits are the most intriguing part of its natural history. They are considered disgusting by some due to their habit of eating dead animals. Others consider them to be an essential part of the ecosystem as nature’s cleaners. Yet others think of them as a threat to livestock capable of killing and devouring newborn farm animals.

  • Black vultures prefer large carcasses
  • They forage for food, eat, and roost in flocks
  • Vultures can eat both fresh and rotten fruit
  • They eat small, live prey that they can swallow whole
  • In farmland, domestic animals provide 89% of their diet
  • In wild areas, wild animals constitute 97% of their diet
  • Black vultures can kill incapacitated small mammals
  • Bacteria in their food does not affect black vultures
  • They are considered a threat to livestock by some

What do black vultures eat?

The black vulture feeds mainly on carrion, but it will also eat many other types of food. They have been observed consuming discarded cooked food, kitchen scraps, fresh and rotten fruit, guts, offal, and fresh and decomposed fish.

Occasionally and given the opportunity, black vultures can prey upon small live animals that they can swallow whole. These include young flightless birds, baby turtles, small snakes, and large grasshoppers.

Black vultures have also been observed eating maggots at carcasses. 

Black vultures are notorious for digging up sea turtles’ nests to eat the eggs. Given the opportunity, they can dig out eggs from unattended alligator and crocodile nests. 

Do black vultures have a preferred food?

Black vultures show a preference for large carcasses such as cows, horses, and donkeys. 

Vultures may prefer large carcasses not because of the taste or quality of the food but because of the possibility of returning to the same carcass over multiple days.

Black vultures are food generalists and will take whatever food is available. Deer carcasses, raccoons, snakes, and wild turkeys were the most important food sources in wild areas.

In North Carolina, black vultures gather near chicken farms to eat dead discarded poultry in dumpsters.

Black vultures congregate in huge numbers at landfills to scavenge for edible food.

In Central and South America, black vultures congregate at slaughterhouses where they feed almost exclusively on discarded meat and gut scraps.

It is common for black vultures to congregate near fish, poultry, and meat sections of supermarkets in Central and South America, where scraps are thrown away for them to eat.

Black vultures can be found in some cities in Central and South America, opening up trash bags and looking into dumpsters for food that has been discarded.

Black vultures are diet generalists eating just about anything edible. However, they prefer the carcasses of large animals. This photo shows a flock of black vultures at a cow carcass. Photo: Julio Monsalvo.

Black vultures also eat fruit and vegetables

Despite their preference for carrion, black vultures can eat fresh and rotten fruit and other plant-based foods.

Black vultures gather at packing houses to consume fresh and rotten discarded fruit.

Throughout Central and South America, they scavenge garbage dumpsters for cooked rice, potatoes, beans, fruit, and other people’s food.

Pellets and droppings found at roost sites contained pieces of plastic, paper, strings, and other plastics. Possibly, these items were swallowed by mistake or were mixed with other foods and swallowed together.

I observed black vultures eating chicken and rabbit feed from open containers in Honduras.

Observers have reported seeing vultures eating cow dung.

A typical diet of black vultures near farms

  • Black vultures consume what is available to them.
  • Near chicken farms, poultry constitutes the main food item.
  • The availability of food at farms is what attracted the vultures to the area in the first place.
  • Their diet near farms is composed of only a few foods. items.
  • In farmland, domestic animals provide 89% of the black vulture’s diet.

Diet of black vultures in wild places

  • Most of the food consumed by vultures in rural and wild places is native wildlife.
  • The more important food items for vultures here include animals more often seen as road-kills.
  • The diet of black vultures in wild places is noticeably more diverse.
  • Wild animals constitute 97% of the black vulture’s diet in wild areas.

Would a black vulture eat another vulture? 

Black vultures refuse to eat the carcasses of other black vultures and are even scared of them. However, there is a single instance where black vultures were observed eating the carcass of another black vulture.

Black vultures are often hit by cars and killed as they congregate near roads to eat roadkilled animals. Collectively, we have observed thousands of roadkilled black vulture carcasses on roadsides, but we have not observed any instances of black vultures eating another black vulture.

Vultures are frightened by the carcass of another vulture. Euthanized black vultures are hung up at roost sites in Central and South America, where people don’t want vultures. 

The effigy of a dead black vulture is used in North America to effectively scare away flocks of black vultures from places where they are not welcome.

The single observation of black vultures eating the carcass of another black vulture needs to be taken in the context it occurred. It appears that vultures may not have been aware that they were eating another black vulture.

According to the reported observation, multiple carcasses were floating in shallow waters on a lakeshore in Florida. Carcasses included a dead barred owl (Strix varia), a nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), and three black vultures. Black vultures were attracted to the scene by the dead animals.

Black vultures were observed eating the carcass of a wet black vulture semi-submerged in shallow water, which might have made it unrecognizable as a vulture by the live vultures. The other carcasses were in deeper waters, not accessible to the black vultures.

Do black vultures feed on live prey?

Black vultures readily eat small live prey they can catch, particularly those that they can swallow whole. 

Field observations include black vultures eating baby birds, small snakes, lizards, baby turtles, crabs, stranded fish, grasshoppers, and cockroaches. 

How do black vultures find dead animals?

A black vulture uses its vision and the help of other black vultures and turkey vultures to locate food on the ground. 

It is important to note that the black vulture and turkey vulture use different cues for finding food. 

Black vultures use their vision to scan the landscape for carcasses and other food sources.

Turkey vultures use their remarkable sense of smell to sniff even mouse-sized carcasses in forested areas. It is said that turkey vultures are the only ones able to smell death.

Black vulture uses three strategies to find food, all of which involve monitoring the activities of other vultures as follows:

  1. Monitoring the activities of other foraging black vultures. Black vultures soar in loose flocks at heights of 300 to 659 ft as they search for a food source. When a bird finds food it drops to the ground, followed by vultures in its immediate surroundings. Soaring vultures further away notice this activity and join the dropping vultures. This explains how quickly many vultures show up at a carcass.

  2. Monitoring the activities of turkey vultures. A turkey vulture flies closer to the ground, using its kin sense of smell to locate its food.

    Once a turkey vulture sniffs a carcass, it begins to fly in smaller circles closer to the ground to eventually perch on a nearby tree close to the carcass.

    Black vultures that typically fly higher than the turkey vultures observe this behavior and join the perched turkey vulture near the carcass or already at the carcass. Turkey vultures are nearly always the first to arrive at a carcass.

  3. Use of communal roosts as information centers. Typically, black vultures commute from their feeding sites to a roost site for the night. Then, the next morning they return to their feeding site.

    Every morning, vultures that were unsuccessful at finding food follow those returning to their feeding sites. 

    Ornithologists studying black vulture food habits trapped and marked vultures at an experimental carcass. Marked vultures left the carcass for their roost and returned the next morning accompanied by vultures that were not there the day before. This proved that the marked birds were followed by birds that did not know about the location of the experimental carcass. 
Black vultures soar over large areas in search of food. While soaring, they monitor other black vultures searching for food as well as turkey vultures, which typically fly at lower altitudes. As soon as a bird finds a carcass, other vultures quickly join the successful foragers.

Can black vultures tell when an animal is dying?

A vulture can tell when an animal is dying based on the animal’s behavior. A distressed animal must first be spotted. Vultures interpret incapacitated animals struggling to move as a sign of eventual death and a potential meal.

Black vultures have been observed standing next to animals that were about to die. The smell did not play any role in the black vultures detecting these animals. The smell is produced by a decomposing body, and black vultures do not have a well-developed sense of smell.

How do black vultures handle a carcass? 

The way black vultures handle a carcass depends on whether the carcass is intact or if it has been mutilated (e.g., roadkilled) and has multiple openings.

  • Intact carcass: Black vultures have long and narrow beaks suitable to remove meat and other tissues from narrow spaces. But the vulture needs to access the inside of the intact dead animal.

    Vultures access the interior of a carcass through the mouth, eyes, and anus. Using the beak, they begin to tear either orifice to make it bigger as they tear and swallow the meat inside. 

    More vultures join in and expand the openings. Black vultures appear to like the guts because access to the guts creates a feeding frenzy among them. They tear the guts apart aggressively, swallowing them in big chunks. 

    After eating the guts and inner organs, black vultures tear muscles and tissues. Then they move on to smaller spaces for tendons and other body parts until the carcass is cleaned out, and the vultures move on.

    Mutilated carcasses: Vultures find it easier to work with a mutilated carcass. They can access any part of the carcass through multiple openings. Black vultures consume mutilated roadkill faster than an intact carcass.

how do vultures not get sick from eating rotten meat?

To prevent getting sick from the food they eat, black and turkey vultures have developed a parallel system of:

  • Killing and filtering harmful bacteria in their stomachs using very strong gastric acids and
  • A powerful immune system capable of handling harmful bacteria.

Scientists analyzed the gut content of 24 turkey vultures and 26 black vultures. They found that they have very harsh chemicals in their stomach capable of breaking down the DNA of the meat they eat. These strong chemicals also filter harmful bacteria.

Do vultures kill their prey?

Black vultures are primarily carrion feeders rather than predators. They do not kill their prey.

As mentioned above, black vultures will catch and eat small live prey that they can swallow whole.

However, during periods of food scarcity, flocks of vultures act more aggressively, are desperate to find food, and may be able to attack and kill small live prey.

In 1939, E. McIlhenny described a flock of vultures attacking and killing a striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). The skunk was walking in a hayfield recently harvested when a black vulture landed next to it. Other vultures joined in. One vulture attacked the skunk, and the rest of the 7 to 9 vultures proceeded to do the same until they killed and subsequently ate the skunk.

The same author reports a similar incident, this time involving a Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Both incidents took place during a period when carrion was scarce, and vultures might have been desperate for food.

It has been 83 years since the 1939 vulture attack. Apparently, there has not been a similar document incident involving black vultures.

Do black vultures attack and carry chickens, dogs, cats, and other pets?

Black vultures and turkey vultures are not predators but primarily carrion feeders; they eat carcasses of dead animals primarily.

Vultures are not equipped to catch, kill and carry another animal using their feet like other birds of prey. They have feet that look more like those of chickens than those of hawks. 

Vultures are physically incapable of grasping things with their feet. Their claws are straight and weak, unlike the hooked and strong claws of a bird that uses its feet for hunting.

Vultures can only take small items with their beaks.

Having said that, a flock of hungry black vultures can attack, using their beaks, sick and incapacitated chickens, small cats, and dogs that are about to die. They would not approach healthy animals.

There is no credible or documented instance where a single or a flock of black vultures attacked and carried a dog, cat, or chicken.

Do black vultures attack and kill livestock?

While black vultures typically go after the placenta, too many vultures are likely to get hungry at times. Instances of unintentional killings of newborns are more likely to occur when there are more black vultures than food available. Periodic culling of the black vulture population may be necessary.

Much has been said about black vultures attacking, killing, and eating newborn livestock. 

Black Vultures are attracted to livestock giving birth because they consume the placenta, the umbilical cord, and other afterbirths. 

The optics of vultures feeding on the placenta may contribute to misinterpreting the facts. 

The placenta and other afterbirths become available in spurs as black vultures wait at the animal giving birth.

Given the “mob” feeding style of black vultures, when pieces of the placenta fall off the mother, vultures get into a feeding frenzy to take a piece of food. Seen from a distance, vultures appear to attack the newborn brutally, but they are just after the placenta.

It is possible that during periods of frenzy feeding, black vultures may try to eat the fresh umbilical cord still attached to the newborn. Many hungry black vultures could hurt or even unintentionally kill a newborn if they pull the fresh umbilical cord. However, field observations reveal that the mother can fend off the vultures, preventing them from causing damage to the newborn.

Black vulture attacks on newborn livestock have been exaggerated

In the not-so-distant past, black vultures were trapped, shot, and poisoned on the belief that they attack, harm, and kill newborn livestock.

Field studies have demonstrated that the negative reputation of black vultures killing newborn livestock has been exaggerated. 

Results from direct monitoring observations of 119 cows giving birth in Florida (USA) and  Brazil found that vultures attended the birth for the placenta left after birth. Although black vultures pecked on the placenta and the newborn, not a single newborn was attacked and killed by vultures. 

A similar study on 138 sheep giving birth found that damage by vultures is minimal. Of the 138 monitoring observations, only five newborn sheep, or 4%, were attributed to black vultures; crested caracaras (Polyborus plancus) were also mixed in the flocks.

Further evidence of the exaggeration of the black vulture’s bad reputation is the similarity between the rate of complaints about losses to black vultures and the natural rate of stillborn calves. 

It is estimated that about 7% of Holstein’s calves die within 48 hours of birth, and up to 11% of first-time mothers produce stillborns. This is to say that approximately 17% of all births naturally result in still-born calves. 

Reported losses, allegedly, to black vultures are similar in percentages. 

Given the amount of naturally occurring stillborn calves, it can be concluded that although black vultures were seen consuming dead calves, it does not necessarily mean that they were responsible for the calves’ deaths.

Do black vultures attack humans?

Black vultures are friendly to humans. There is no documented instance where black vultures have attacked humans. Claims of vultures swooping down on people or pets are mistaken for vultures flying over.

How friendly and habituated black vultures are to humans varies across the vulture’s range.

Black vultures depend on humans for food in most of their range. Consequently, they live close to humans.

Black vultures do not tolerate humans in close proximity and tend to fly away. In most of North America, black vultures are skittish. Even when they are busy eating a carcass, the presence of humans at a distance causes them to fly to nearby trees until the humans leave.

The black vulture has become habituated to humans in close proximity in parts of Central and South America. Black vultures do not react to humans walking in close proximity as the birds scavenge in trash bags and dumpsters.

On the other hand, people dislike black vultures because they believe that they pose a threat to their pets and livestock. Others claim that black vultures are capable of spreading diseases through their droppings.

Vultures are gregarious birds. They search for food, eat, loaf, and roost in flocks of varying sizes. When vultures concentrate in an area where they aren’t expected, it is almost always because there is a carcass nearby. Photo: Life-Lenses.

What does it mean when vultures circle your house?

Black vultures and turkey vultures fly in circles using thermals to gain altitude as they forage for food.

Circling and crossing the sky is part of a vulture’s daily foraging routine. However, if vultures fly persistently over an area and begin to land or perch on trees, it may mean that there is a carcass nearby.

The moment that one vulture discovers a carcass, other vultures join it, resulting in a quick congregation in a short period of time.

Vultures perch in trees near and above the carcass before descending to the ground.

If a carcass is found near a house, vultures will circle and cross the sky above the location of the carcass. This behavior may appear as if the birds are surrounding someone’s house. What they are doing is following other vultures as they congregate at the carcass. 

Depending on the size of the carcass, vultures can return to the area for several days until they clean out the carcass and then move on.


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