Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2015

Vol. 43, No. 3

Gleanings: You Are What You Eat?

David M. Larson


Black Vulture. (Photograph © Shawn P. Carey)

Birds eat the darnedest things. Snowy Owls specialize on lemmings in the Arctic and eat other mammals, waterfowl, and dainty bits here in New England. And Great Horned Owls don’t shun a tasty skunk. But vultures have diets that most birds will not touch and possibly could not survive.

New World vultures, such as Turkey and Black, consume fairly rotten meals. They play a vital role in scavenging dead animals, cleaning up messes, and recycling. Turkey Vultures depend on the odor of decomposing flesh to locate their meals while Black Vultures are more visual hunters. Because they lack the sharply hooked bills and raking talons of raptors, vultures often have to wait for decomposition of larger dead mammals to advance to the point that the tough skin bursts. Often the only entry point for vultures into mammals that have not gotten to that point of ripeness is through the softer tissues around the anus. Hence, whether vultures dine on freshly dead or more aged carrion, bacteria and bacterial toxins are an inescapable part of their diet.

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