What do turkey vultures eat?

Knowing what the turkey vulture eats is one of the most intriguing things about this bird. The fact that they eat dead animals is no secret, but few know when and where they look for carcasses, as well as the kind of carrion they prefer to eat. Read on if learning about the turkey vulture’s diet interests you.

A turkey vulture stands on top of the carcass of a South American Sea Lion (Otaria flavescens). The other three are black vultures (Coragyps atratus). In this picture, the turkey vulture is not necessarily defending the carcass by spreading its wings, it just happens to be doing so at the time it was taken. Black vultures are more numerous and aggressive often keeping turkey vultures away from the carcass. Photo credit: Antonio Garcia.

The turkey vulture feeds nearly exclusively on carrion. They feed on carcasses of all types of animals and sizes ranging from washed-up minnows, and mice, to cows, and even the carcasses of washed-up whales. The turkey vulture’s remarkable sense of smell allows it to find even a shrew on the forest floor of a dense-canopied forest. Turkey vultures are opportunists feeding on what’s available to them in the landscape and through the annual cycle.

What animals make up the diet of the Turkey vultures?

The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) feeds on the carcasses of animals that are found in the area where it forages for food. Essentially, its diet consists of the types and amounts of the animals that live in a certain region, which are expected to die at similar rates.

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.

Domestic Animals (weight in pounds)Wild Animals (weight in pounds)
Domestic Cats (8-11 lb)
Dog (16-45 lb)
Horse (600 lb)
Pig (300-700 lb)
Cattle (1,600-2,400 lb)
Sheep (150-350 lb)
Poultry (5.7 lb)
Deer (150 lb)
skunk (4.4 lb)
Racoon (8-20 lb)
Rats (2.6-8.1 lb)
Mouse (0.7 lb)
Pocket mouse (0.02 lb)
Squirrels (1-1.5 lb)
Rabbits (2.5 lb)
Moles and Shrews (0.01-0.02 lb)
Opossums (5-14 lb)
Birds (0.03-0.07 lb)
Small snake (0.5-1 lb)

Regional diet variation of the turkey vulture’s diet

As expected, the animal carcasses included in the turkey vulture’s diet vary by state as follows: 

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

Dietary variation according to season 

The type and amount of carcasses the turkey vulture consumes vary according to season. Studies in Pennsylvania and Virginia noted an increase of road-killed deer in the spring months when deer are more active and likely to be hit by vehicles. The same holds true for raccoons and possums which are also more active in the spring and summer months.

In other parts of the turkey vulture’s range, its diet also changes according to the seasonal die-offs or breeding events of animals. For instance, on the pacific coast of South America turkey vultures feed on mostly the placenta of female sea lions giving birth and carcasses of pups that die during the birthing season.

In the Amazon basin, turkey vultures congregate around the seasonal die-off of fish during the dry season. During the months when chicken carcasses are discarded at chicken farms, turkey vultures appear in large numbers.

Where do turkey vultures feed?

Turkey vultures feed in any habitat type, always on the ground. They do this because most carcasses are found on the ground. When the carcass is found in shallow water, turkey vultures have been observed wading to reach it.

Unlike hawks and falcons, turkey vultures cannot take even the smallest carcass from the ground to a branch. Their feet are too weak to carry anything.

Turkey vultures can carry small items in their beaks, such as mice or snakes. Though they eat carcasses where they are found, they have been observed dragging rats, squirrels, or similar-sized animals for short distances with their bills. 

Turkey vultures have been observed standing on floating carcasses of large animals such as pigs, cows, and alligators.

An unusual sighting, a turkey vulture carrying what appears to be a rib bone with some dry meat still attached to it. Turkey vultures seldon carry things. Photo: JJ Pamplona.

Do turkey vultures prefer fresh or decaying carrion?

In captive conditions, turkey vultures prefer fresh to mildly decayed carrion. This assertion is based on feeding trials where captive turkey vultures preferred carcasses of fresh and mildly decayed chickens over fresh and decayed carcasses of other animals. 

These findings suggest that when available, turkey vultures prefer fresh and mild-tasting carrion. 

However, turkey vultures are unlikely to make this choice in the wild as they need to be able to detect the typical scent of decomposition to locate a carcass.

Turkey vultures discover carcasses only after decay has begun. Decomposing soft tissue releases over 400 compounds, including hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol, and benzene derivatives, all of which contribute to the distinct odor of the carcass.    

Thus, most of the food eaten by the turkey vulture in the wild must be in some state of decomposition when the carcass is found and consumed.

Furthermore, in some cases, turkey vultures need to wait for the decomposition process to begin and continue until the thick skin of large animals softens enough for the vultures to begin tearing into the carcass.

Do turkey vultures trap and kill what they eat?

Turkey vultures feed on mostly carcasses of dead animals but are capable of killing small ones. On one occasion, a turkey vulture was observed chasing and killing newly hatched chicks of a grouse. They have also been observed killing wounded and unable to fly small birds and baby birds on the ground.

A turkey vulture once harassed nestlings of great blue herons so that they would regurgitate their crop content for the vulture to eat. Also opportunistically, they are likely to intercept and eat sea turtle hatchlings.

On another occasion, they caught and ate live minnows stranded on a creek with little water. Finally, they have been known to attack sick and dazed baby chickens and other domestic fowl.

Overall, the turkey vulture is capable of killing very small and vulnerable prey in an opportunistic fashion. Turkey vultures do not purposely search for small live prey to catch and eat.

How much does a turkey vulture eat every day? 

Little is known about the amount of food a turkey vulture eats daily. Turkey vultures in captivity ate approximately 5 to 7 oz of meat per day. However, they can go without eating for up to 17 days.

Because carrion is unpredictable in time and space, scavengers have developed the ability to gorge themselves when food is available. They are also able to store food in their expandable crops so that they do not need to feed every day. 

The king vulture and Andean condor can also go several days and weeks without eating.

Turkey vultures in captive conditions were deprived of food and did not show any loss of weight in the first eight days. By day 11, the turkey vultures began to lose weight and by day 17, the birds started to show signs of starvation.

In conclusion, turkey vultures may go without food for about 10 days without problems.

The turkey vulture is the ultimate scavenger

In its most basic definition, a scavenger is an animal that has evolved to rely on eating already dead animals rather than killing them directly.

Most scavengers are meat-eaters. They can occasionally act as predators but happens under certain circumstances, such as during periods of food scarcity or with prey that is nearly dead already.

The turkey vulture is the ultimate definition of a scavenger. They are well-suited for eating dead animals. Turkey vultures have an excellent sense of smell and eyesight, allowing them to sniff and spot carrion from above. 

Compared to other birds of prey, the turkey vulture has weak talons and beaks because they do not need strong, sharp talons and beaks for hunting. They are bald because it prevents pieces of carrion that might be infected with pathogenic bacteria from sticking to their heads.

The turkey vulture food web

An essential tenet of a food web is that animals must eat other animals, other living things, or things that at one point were alive. The components of the turkey vulture food web include:

  • Primary producers or plants, that convert solar energy into food energy.
  • Primary consumers cannot create food energy from the sun and rely on primary producers to obtain their food energy. Primary consumers are typically herbivores, from small insects to cows.
  • Secondary consumers eat the primary consumers. They are typically known as predators capable of catching and killing primary consumers. Secondary consumers sit high on the food web. Generally, no other animals target them as food.
  • Tertiary consumers eat the secondary consumers, and on rare occasions even primary producers. Tertiary consumers are diet generalists. The classic example of tertiary consumers is most bear species, which that have a plant-based diet but eat secondary and primary consumers.

Food web representation

The turkey vulture food web describes the energetic relationships between live animals. What is interesting about the turkey vulture is that it sits on the very top of the food web yet it can act as a consumer at all levels below. 

The turkey vulture sits on top as a fourth trophic level or in the center of the food web. They can equally feed on tertiary, secondary, and primary consumers and even on primary producers. 

Perhaps a better way to represent the turkey vulture’s food web is by a circular food web rather than a pyramid. In the representation below primary, secondary, and tertiary consumers are potential food for the turkey vulture.

Some identify the turkey vulture as the ultimate consumer or decomposer as they consume all other consumers below its trophic level and can even consume primary producers (plant-based food).

In the turkey vulture food web, grass represents the primary producers. Deer and rabbits are primary consumers, which are prey for secondary consumers such as the bobcat. The turkey vulture is a tertiary consumer standing at the center of its food web. Primary, secondary, and tertiary consumers, as well as primary producers, are potential food for the turkey vulture.

What time of day do turkey vultures search for food and eat?

To search for food, turkey vultures need to cover vast areas using the least amount of energy. To attain this, vultures use thermal updrafts. 

Depending on the region and time of the year, thermal updrafts begin to form between 3 to 4 hours after sunrise. Hence this marks the time turkey vultures take to the air to hunt for carcasses.

Turkey vultures return to roost sites every night after foraging for food and feeding. When they are feeding on a large carcass, turkey vultures return to the same carcass for as long as there is food. They do not spend time foraging in these circumstances but fly back directly to the carcass’ location. 

Do turkey vultures eat at night?

No, turkey vultures forage for food and eat exclusively during the day. They could not perform the effortless and low-energy flight they normally do because thermal updrafts do not form at night. Also, turkey vultures’ eyes are small, and they do not have the capacity for night vision.

Furthermore, cool air tends to settle lower to the ground. Thus, the smell of carcasses at night would be kept low to the ground, which would be inefficient for animals that rely on smell to find food.

Do turkey vultures eat bones?

Turkey vultures only eat small bones of small mammals such as mice and shrews. Carcasses of very small mammals are torn apart and swallowed in parts, including small bones and skin.

Near chicken farms, where turkey vultures congregate to eat dead discarded chickens, they have been observed swallowing the small bones of chickens.

Although unable to ingest large bones, the turkey vulture is a specialist in scraping muscles and tendons attached to the bones of large animals. When scraping carrion attached to the bones, they use their feet and middle toe to press the bone down and tear the soft tissue.