Scavenger birds are subject to hate and despisement even from most bird enthusiasts.
Often, you’ll find scavenger birds working on road kills and very busy near garbage heaps. When you see them, it’s easy to shoot or frown upon them, not knowing that scavenger birds play a vital part in our ecosystem.
And since scavenging encompasses both herbivorous and carnivorous feeding behavior, you’ll find surprises in this article. (You’ll also find interesting tidbits about some birds.)
Table of Contents
15 Types of Scavenger Birds
You can’t talk of scavenger birds without mentioning the infamous vultures! These birds range in every continent apart from Antarctica and Oceania.
Vultures belong to two families; the Old World vultures that inhabit the whole of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and the New World vultures.
Eating only carrion, you cannot miss vultures on battlefields, not participating, but just nearby waiting for their moment. And to help these scavengers devour their catch, they have developed adaptations. Their powerful beaks effortlessly tear meat, while the unique barbed tongues allow the birds to pick bones.
What’s more, most vultures have bald heads to protect them from any germ-infested blood that would otherwise stick around if they had feathers on their heads while digging deeper into their meal.
If you miss vultures in the parks, be sure to catch them in most nature documentaries.
Found in almost any habitat, Ravens are not related to vultures, but you’ll often see them near each other, all because they belong to the same ecological niche. Like vultures, ravens are worldwide birds.
While these little birds can sometimes prey on lizards and insects, they’re attracted to garbage and carcasses at every opportunity. In fact, ravens are so synonymous with dead animals that some cultures in Northern Europe have developed myths around ravens as death symbols! And in ancient times, ravens followed armies to the battlefield for reasons you can guess.
And to make ravens excellent for the task, they have robust beaks to pull out the flesh and strong claws to tear open carcasses left by other predators.
Western Jackdaw is a small black-grey bird belonging to the same family as crows and ravens. It’s found across North Africa, Europe, and Asia, inhabiting farmlands, woodlands, and urban areas.
Western Jackdaws love moving in flocks of varying sizes and gather at one site when feeding. They’re very exploratory birds and turn over objects in garbage and landfills looking for food, including carcasses and rotten human food. They are adapted to this lifestyle with their stout bills and binocular vision.
And although good for ecology, the western jackdaw is seen as a bad omen bird, like its cousins, ravens, and crows.
4. Bald Eagles
Native to North America, bald eagles are large, magnificent birds that soar high through the sky effortlessly. And while they’re known to hunt for themselves, bald eagles won’t turn down a free meal in the form of carrion. According to Wikipedia, carrion accounts for 24% of their diet. Bald eagles can be observed stealing fish from juveniles and chasing away other scavengers, such as ravens, from carcasses.
Fun fact; bald eagles are not bald, contrary to what the name suggests. They have feathers all over their body.
5. Eurasian Magpies
The Eurasian magpie is a small, white and black bird with a long tail and is found all over – in towns, gardens, and woodlands – the northern regions of the Eurasian continent.
While in farmlands, this little bird can feed on vegetable substances. But in the wild, the Eurasian magpie is a scavenger. Moving in pairs, these territorial birds eat scraps and carrion of large and small mammals. You can also see them poking their bills in other birds’ nests to steal eggs and chicks.
Like ravens and crows, book a spot among the most intelligent birds.
6. Crested Caracara
Belonging to the falcon family, crested caracaras are scavengers you’ll find walking through the agricultural lands, scrublands, prairies, and deserts of Central and South America with their long legs.
Regarded as one of the most beautiful birds, crested caracaras have dark-colored feathers, yellow legs and beaks, white necks, and spice up with a dark-colored crest sitting on the head.
But while beautiful, crested caracaras won’t shy away from eating carcasses. In fact, these birds prefer to steal the dead catch from the owner. They steal not only on land but also in flight from other birds.
Crows belong to the same genus as ravens but are thin-billed and smaller than their counterparts. You can spot crows in almost every part of the world, except the American crow, which inhabits South America only.
Crows can feed on plant-based food, and you’ll often find them busy in the garbage, and landfills, making loud, raspy, signature “kaw” ‘kaw” calls while feasting. However, most of their food comes from carcasses, which include mammals and reptiles.
Crows are very smart and use their intelligence to crowd other animals and steal their food. They are also known to solve their problems and get what they want through the most treacherous means.
However, like ravens, crows are associated with death in different cultures due to their creepy appearance.
Fun fact: a group of crows is called a murder!
Kites are medium-sized raptor birds widely distributed all over Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
While kites can hunt their prey, they like gliding and soaring high in the sky, often on open plains, and when a scavenging opportunity arises, they will swoop down swiftly to devour.
And when not in the sky, these magnificent flyers flock around bushfires to capitalize on the victims.
9. Marabou Storks
Marabou Storks are large, long-legged, wilding birds with dagger-like bills and a neck that looks like it has been just sunburned.
The macabre-looking birds inhabit the Sahara and prefer open grasslands and dry savannas where they look for food. Talking of food, storks eat anything, including feces and scraps of dead animals, and deservedly earn their nickname; nature’s garbage collectors.
Like vultures, these hygienic birds have bald heads for blood-free feasting. They’re also armed with powerful beaks to get through the thick hides of large animals effortlessly.
If you think hawks eat exclusively live prey and never dead animals, you’re dead wrong! These magnificent birds are opportunistic scavengers.
Found in most parts of the world, hawks will hover around a dead animal before landing and circling to tear the carcass. With their sharp eyesight, hawks can spot carcasses from a far distance, and their powerful curved beaks and talons come in handy when dissecting the leftovers.
Jays are small, noisy birds with varying colors inhabiting western North America and Eurasia.
Although they eat nuts, seeds, and acorns, jays are opportunistic scavengers that will devour dead animals and human leftovers. They’re territorial birds that use their noise and aggressiveness to scare other small animals from their catch. They have short, stout, and cone-shaped bills to help tear down flesh from carcasses.
As called chaparral birds, the roadrunner is a large but slender ground bird with a head crest mimicking that of a crested caracara. It adorns black-brown feathers and has long legs and a massive beak.
The bird usually lives in deserts, plains, and woodlands of Mexico and southwestern America.
The primary food source for these birds is reptiles, small mammals, rodents, and small birds it hunts. That said, roadrunners scavenge on carrion if the opportunity arises.
Close relatives of skimmers and terns, gulls are robust, grey or white long-winged birds with black markings on the head and wings and webbed feet.
These birds live in different parts of the world, including America, the Caribbean, Brazil, Peru, Australia, and South Africa. They can coexist with humans in the same habitats, and you’ll often find them near major lakes, bays, and coastlines.
Gulls obtain most of their food from scavenging human garbage and dead animals with the help of their stout, long beaks. In colonies, gulls have been observed displaying mobbing behaviors. But if carrion is unavailable, the birds will hunt fishes, worms, young birds, and crustaceans.
14. The Peregrine Falcon
The peregrine falcon, also the peregrine, is a raptor bird with blue-grey feathers on the back, white undersides, and a black head. It’s the fastest bird in the world.
Except in tropical rainforests, high mountains, and polar regions, the peregrine is found worldwide. In urban areas, it prefers perching on tall buildings.
The bird hunts insects, small rodents, and mammals, but some accounts record peregrine scavenging on dead animals, especially on land near marine ecosystems.
15. Snow Petrels
The snow petrel is a small (size of a pigeon), pure white bird with a black bill and blue-grey feet.
Snow petrels live in the cold antarctic waters of the geographic south poles and are found in flocks sitting on icebergs.
The diet of these birds consists of mollusks, krill, fish, and cephalopods, while they won’t say no to a free meal in the form of dead animals such as whale carcasses, seal placentas, dead penguin chicks, and dead squids that come to the surface.