Despite their unnerving appearance and fearsome demeanor, vultures are rather harmless birds.
Though they do have piercing bills, but they lack powerful crushing feet.
Which is why they prefer submissive and weak prey.
Vultures rarely hunt for healthy animals, instead, they consume carrion as their staple diet.
Question is –
Why Don’t Vultures Eat Live Animals?
Primarily, because they lack the means as well as the motivation to do so.
You see vultures have evolved for centuries to become specialists in eating the dead.
So much so, that they are the only land-based obligate scavengers.
Thereby, the underlying reasons for a vulture not eating live animals can be given as:
1. Lacking Hunting Essentials
Even if a vulture tries, it cannot become a formidable hunter, because of the following features:
a. Chicken-like Feet
Nearly all birds of prey possess strong muscular feet with piercing talons.
And so, they can crush and tear apart their prey with mere raw strength.
In contrast, vultures don’t have powerful claws.
Vultures have elongated toes with blunt talons, arranged like chicken feet.
Such feet can only be used for walking, or sometimes hopping.
(Or who knows, probably tap-dancing too).
Even if a vulture decides to hunt, it would be unable to hold that prey down.
b. Stealth and Swiftness
Most raptors hunt while relying on their ability to surprise their victim.
And so, they have mastered the art of stealth.
For instance, a hawk vertically dives at the speed of 180km/hour, grabs the shocked victim, and takes it to its nest.
Also, owls can hunt in complete silence as they have thick feathers designed to muffle fluttering sounds.
Though, vultures have heavy wings that allow them to reach heights above 40,000 feet.
However, they are rather bulky birds, typically weighing above 7kgs.
Therefore, flying instantly through flapping is quite a struggle for these birds.
Vultures typically don’t have the speed or the stealth to surprise any prey.
c. Hunting Instincts
While the old-world vulture species have excellent vision, most of the new-world vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell.
These traits help vultures to track rotting dead bodies, before any other scavenger.
Vultures lack the boldness as well as hunting instincts of a predator.
So, in the face of danger, while an eagle will spread its wings and try to appear enticing.
The vomit itself helps the vultures in distracting their predator.
Also, the puke reduces the vulture weight.
Consequently, they easily become airborne and flee the scene.
d. Beak Strength
Vulture beaks have sharp edges to tear away bite-sized meat chunks.
No doubt, a vulture can cause significant damage to any animal, if they use their beaks the right way.
In fact, vultures must often wait for a carcass to soften down before they can even poke through its skin.
Sometimes, they wait for other scavengers to rip open the dead
2. Specialization In Scavenging
Unlike Voldemort’s Death Eaters, vultures have evolved to become “True Death Eaters”.
Vultures are highly specialized in eating the dead.
And so, they can eat all sorts of dead meat, making them the masters of recycling, (see figure 1 below).
a. Tracking Skills
Vultures can see a carcass from thousands of miles above the ground.
Furthermore, they can see even the thermal spectra of a living being.
Did you know they can even smell a rotting carcass, from tens of miles away! Pretty awesome right
Some vultures can even track other predators to snatch a fresh kill.
This is precisely why wildlife personnel often follow vultures for tracking a dead elephant and arresting ivory poachers.
Figure 1: Vulture characteristics enabling them to be the scavenging experts
b. Physical Features
This is why, they can dip their faces inside a decaying carcass, and not get unnecessary residues attached.
Also, vultures have protective eye membranes.
Another thing to mention is their chicken-like feet help them walk above dead bodies without much hindrance.
c. Gut Adaptations
Their stomach juice (pH<1) is acidic enough to even corrode iron.
Which means vultures can easily kill of toxins like botulism, anthrax, rabies, cholera, distemper, and even bubonic plague.
Also, their natural microbial flora also incapacitates certain pathogens.
Therefore, 40% of all harmful microbes are just left hanging inside the gut.
Vultures tend to urinate on themselves, thereby regulating their temperature through evaporative cooling.
Consequently, vultures get rid of any residual infectious agents from their feet, accumulated by walking on the dead bodies.
e. Frequent Cleansing
Contrary to common belief, vultures are fairly neat birds.
They frequently preen each other and they also take baths after each meal.
Additionally, they have a highly efficient immune system, thereby making them resistant to most airborne infections.
f. Eating ability
Vultures have beaks designed for efficient scavenging.
They can pick clean any animal to expose the bone.
Some vulture species can even chew down bones.
Other vultures may take bones to high altitudes and throw them down, to pick out the bone marrow.
Since vultures only eat dead bodies, they don’t know when the next meal will be available.
Which is why
Vultures can store food in their crops and survive sometimes without much food.
3. Absence Of Hunting Motivation
Like all other animals, vultures also prefer easy meals.
Vultures don’t really need to hunt
a. Struggle to Eat Live Prey
Even though hunting prey is hard, but getting to eat that fresh hunt is even harder.
In fact, stealing a fresh kill from a hunter is easier than catching live prey.
For instance, lions struggle and catch a buffalo.
However, hyenas take away the fresh kill from the already tired lions.
For this reason,
Even if a vulture learns to prey, it may still not get to eat that prey.
b. Availability Of Carrion
While all other resources can deplete, however, dead bodies are always available.
For instance, during a famine, all animals can die but that also means vultures will grow more.
And so, there is never a shortage of weak, dead, or dying animals.
c. Competition For Scavenging
In the wild, getting an infection does not mean eating penicillin and surviving.
Instead, it means a slow and alone excruciating death.
Most animals don’t even come near the sick, much less the dead.
In fact, even scavengers avoid maggot-ridden flesh.
But vultures can ingest all sorts of dead animals, without getting infected.
Vultures don’t really need to hunt, as they always have more and exclusive carrion.
All this explains why vultures don’t eat live animals.
You might find this article interesting – Are vultures dangerous?
What about humans?
Would a vulture eat a live human?
Let’s find out..
Will a Vulture Eat a Live Human?
Because vultures are extremely cautious birds.
Therefore, they circle for hours above a dead body, before swooping down for the feast.
Related article you may find interesting – Why do vultures circle?
This helps vultures ensure that their food is already dead, and not moving an inch.
Otherwise, an almost dying animal can put up a fight and eat that vulture.
Wait, who in their right mind wants to eat a vulture?
Unfortunately, it is most common among humans, especially in deserts.
So, humans lie down pretending to be dead.
As soon as the first vulture lands, the human grabs and eats that poor vulture.
Perhaps, this is why:
No authentic human deaths have been reported from vulture assaults.
Vultures are far more at risk from live humans than any other animal.
While vultures don’t eat live humans or even pets for that matter.
They do eat human remains as well as animal dead bodies.
Related article – Do vultures attack humans?
Will a Vulture Eat a Dead Cat?
It sure would
Now, if given a choice, vultures too have certain dietary preferences. So:
- Freshly dead and maggot-free.
- Herbivore carcass instead of a carnivore one.
- Less fatty and more muscular flesh
- Red meat instead of a white one.
Since cats are carnivores with relatively high-fat content.
Therefore, they are not the ideal form of carrion for a vulture.
Which is why
A vulture would prefer eating something else instead of a cat.
But then, vultures are rarely presented with a choice of food.
Eventually, a dead cat will be eaten by vultures.
Do Vultures Ever Eat Live Prey?
They do but only when there are too many vultures to feed and less carrion available.
However, certain vulture species can eat newly born lizards, turtles, frogs, or sometimes even chicks.
Furthermore, vultures can also eat rotting walnuts and vegetables.
Therefore, they are often seen around garbage dumps.
If vultures hunt a large mammal, they would choose a still-born, sick, or weak individual.
This is precisely why vultures have been reported to hunt sheep right after they have given birth, or newly bred calf, or sometimes poultry chicken.
But such cases are isolated events, therefore extremely rare.
A vulture would rather eat a dying rodent than a large mammal
Vultures don’t eat live prey, instead, they eat carrion as their staple diet.
Partly because they cannot hunt efficiently.
However, even if they could, eating carrion is easier than hunting live prey.
You see, vultures are specialized scavengers and so, they don’t really need to hunt.
So, a vulture would not eat live pets or humans.
However, they can certainly eat human remains or a dead cat or any other animal carcass