Scavenging birds are bird species that mostly or exclusively feed on dead organisms they find in the wild. These birds are extremely important in the ecosystem as they speed up the process of decomposition.
In today’s article, we’ll be learning about the 12 types of scavenger bird species.
- Old World Vultures
- New World Vultures
Note: The birds are ranked in no particular order.
1. Old World Vultures
Scientific name (subfamilies): Gypaetinae & Aegypiinae
Old World vultures are birds from the so-called Old World – Europe, Africa, and Asia.
These animals are well known as scavenging birds, getting most of their calories from dead animals they find in the wild.
Taking the Lappet-faced vulture as a representative of the group, these scavenging birds find carrion by sight. They have impeccable sight, which they had to develop as their sense of smell isn’t very strong.
These African scavenger birds are the largest of the African vultures, so they often steal food from other vultures.
They’ll often converge on a dead animal in a large group, but solitary behavior isn’t uncommon.
2. New World Vultures
Scientific name (family): Cathartidae
As the name suggests, these vultures are only found in South and North America, while most of North America is only populated by the turkey vulture during the summer.
All species of New World vultures are scavengers, feeding on carrion almost exclusively. If not enough carrion is available, they’ll look for fruit (often eating rotten fruit) and human garbage.
Unlike Old World vultures, they have a great sense of smell and they rely on it to find carrion.
Although the name might suggest it, New World vultures are in no relation to Old World vultures – both groups have evolved in very similar ways independently.
Scientific name (genus): Buteo
There are over 30 species of buzzards, which includes hawks. The terms ‘hawk’ and ‘buzzard’ are one and the same.
These birds are opportunistic predators – they’ll always catch live prey if possible, but they won’t say no to carrion.
They especially like fish carrion, or any carrion of larger mammals that they could never kill on their own – dogs, cats, foxes, and large ungulates.
Buzzards are more often seen eating carrion during the winter, as living prey becomes scarce.
Scientific name (family): Accipitridae
Eagles are considered apex predators in their respective environments – they are very few, if any, animals that get the jump on them.
In fact, they often feed on other birds, among other prey, such as reptiles, small mammals, amphibians, and even large insects.
Carrion makes up a large part of their diet, particularly during the colder months of the year. This is common with many birds of prey – they resort to scavenging when living prey goes into hibernation.
An example of this is the golden eagle of Yellowstone, which frequents common wolf sites and feeds on their leftovers. They also feed carrion to their young.
Scientific names: Vultur gryphus & Gymnogyps californianus
The only two species of the condor are found on the western coasts of South and North America.
The California condor is one of the very few scavenger birds in America, not to mention that it’s likely the only species of scavenger birds in California.
Both of these species often feed on large mammal carcasses – deer, bears, cougars, horses, and all sorts of ungulates.
If there aren’t enough large carcasses, they’ll eat smaller mammals, even aquatic mammals that float after dying in the ocean.
Since they’re so large, they can easily intimidate other animals and scare them away from carrion, with bears and golden eagles being the only notable exceptions.
Scientific name (genus): Corvus
Crows are an undefined group within the Corvus genus, and they’re not the only group from that genus to feed on carrion. Although most crows will feed on carrion, the carrion crow is the best example of this behavior.
They will often follow humans and scavenge near human establishments, not only to find meat leftovers but household waste they can feed on.
Crows will often converge on other carnivorous animals, such as foxes or birds of prey, and literally bully them away from their food.
If carrion isn’t available, these scavenger birds in the UK will coordinate and hunt together.
Scientific name (genus): Corvus
Ravens are very similar to crows and the two groups are unintelligible from one another to most people.
This isn’t without reason – these two groups are identical, with the only noticeable difference being their size, as ravens are much larger.
Just like crows, ravens are opportunistic when it comes to their feeding. Corvus corax, the common raven, is the most intelligent of all birds.
They’ll gladly feed on carrion if it’s available, especially in places with a lack of living prey. If carrion isn’t available, they’ll feed on fruit and grains.
Showcasing a similar behavior to that of crows, ravens often follow humans or wolves, feeding on leftovers.
Scientific name (subfamily): Sterninae
Although terns are known as diving birds, they’ll scavenge for food if an opportunity is provided.
This particularly relates to human food – they’ll converge near fishing boats or the docks, where they’ll try (and often succeed) to take fish from fishermen.
Scientific name (family): Laridae
Seagulls are known as some of the most adaptable scavengers in the world, as they’ll eat anything they find.
Although fish makes up the largest part of their diet (they obtain it the same way terns do), they’ll eat roadkill, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
They’re known for stealing food from people, as well as converging on predators in huge numbers and scaring them away from their food. They’ll often attack another bird with a fish and steal it.
Scientific name (subfamily): Caracarinae
Caracaras are opportunistic predators – they’ll feed on carrion if possible, and if there are no dead animals around, they’ll catch small animals.
Some caracaras, such as the mountain caracaras, almost exclusively feed on carrion because of the lack of living prey in their natural habitat.
They’ll often forage in groups, while solitary caracaras will follow vehicles with the hope that the people inside will throw out scraps.
Because of this same reason, caracaras are more common near human habitats than in the wild, often concentrating near cities.
Scientific name (order): Strigiformes
Although it was believed until recently that owls only feed on living prey, new research finds that owls will scavenge if a carcass is found.
They particularly like mammals, usually large ungulates such as deer, but they’ll eat rabbits and raccoons too.
They’ll eat carrion in both winter and summer, proving that there’s no distinction between prey availability – they simply eat carrion because it’s easier than hunting.
Scientific name (genus): Stercorarius
Skuas are known as bullies of the bird world, as they’ll often take carrion from other species. These birds often kill gulls and smaller birds, while they can easily rob gulls, terns, and gannets.
They feed by taking food away from other birds throughout the entire year. This act is called kleptoparasitism and skuas are one of the most kleptoparasitic animals in existence.
A skua species called ‘parasitic jaeger’ is so well known for stealing food that it was named after the practice.
Scavenging birds aren’t only known for feeding on animal carcasses, but also for stealing kills from other animals. Skuas are particularly known for this, but gulls, crows, and ravens are all known as thieves.
Old World and New World vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion, often eating animals several times their size. This makes them very important ecological agents as they help decompose food.