Carrion

Bald Eagle Eating Carrion
Bald eagles and many other raptors will happily feed on a carcass. Photo © Sandy Stewart/Flickr/Used With Permission

Definition:

(noun) Carrion is the dead, decaying flesh of an animal that often serves as a food source for other carnivorous or omnivorous animals and birds. To be classified as carrion, the animal cannot have been killed by the same animal consuming it, but must have died from another cause. The word carrion comes from the Latin caro, meaning meat.

Pronunciation:

care-EEE-on
(rhymes with clarion, barbarian and "jerry in")

Sources of Carrion

Carrion can come from many sources and can be dead animals of all sizes, from small rodents to larger mammals or even whales. Scavengers do not discriminate about where they get their next meal. Common sources of carrion include:

  • Predator Kills: Flocks of scavenging birds may chase away lone predators and take over a kill. They may also feed from an abandoned kill after the hunting predators has moved on.
  • Hunting Discards: Internal organs or unwanted pieces of a hunted animal that are left behind by hunters. This may also include wounded animals that die before a hunter claims them.
  • Vehicle Kills: Roadkill can occur anywhere and is used by all types of scavenging animals, including bears, raccoons and birds.
  • Accidental Deaths: Animals that die from accidents, such as window collisions, net tangles or similar causes, will become carrion.
  • Natural Deaths: Animals that die of old age, disease, injuries, premature birth or other causes can all become carrion.
  • Beach Strandings: Marine animals that get stranded on beaches and die will become carrion for scavenging gulls, shorebirds, corvids and raptors.

As carrion ages, it is often accompanied by a foul, rancid smell caused by bacterial growth, and the meat is unfit for human consumption. Animals and birds, however, have different digestive systems and better tolerance for old meat, and can often feed from a carcass even if it has significantly decayed.

In many cases, an older carcass is even more palatable to birds, because as the meat rots, it becomes softer and easier for smaller bills or talons to tear into.

Birds That Eat Carrion

A wide range of birds may feed on carcasses. Birds regularly known as carrion-eaters include:

  • Vultures, buzzards and condors
  • Caracaras
  • Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey
  • Crows, ravens and other large corvids
  • Gulls, skuas and terns

Depending on the size of the carcass and how much activity is around it, other omnivorous birds such as jays, pigeons, roadrunners and hoopoes may also take advantage of carrion. Even some seabirds, including fulmars, may scavenge carrion from beached carcasses.

In addition to birds, many insects, mammals and even large reptiles such as Komodo dragons will eat carrion. Opossums, coyotes and hyenas are other animals known for eating carrion. Humans rarely eat these carcasses, however, because not only is the meat unsafe for humans to eat, but many religious guidelines and social taboos prohibit carrion as a food source.

Hazards of Carrion

Dead carcasses can be an easy food source for many birds, but carrion is not without risks. Depending on how the animal died and how long it has been deceased, risks include:

  • Disease transmission through excessive bacteria, insects or contamination from the feces of previous carrion-eaters
  • Inadvertent poisoning from lead contamination of hunting offal when birds may ingest any remaining lead pellets
  • Poisoning from a carcass that has been illegally tainted as a trap for unwanted predators or that is contaminated with pesticides
  • Attacks by other predators drawn by the scent of the decaying carcass, particularly when competition for food is high
  • Vehicle collisions when feeding on carcasses on roadways, including birds hit because they are too stuffed with their meal to fly out of the way

Many birds that feed on carrion have adaptations or strategies to deal with these risks. Stronger stomach acids can kill many disease-causing bacteria, and birds that regularly dig into carcasses, such as vultures, often have bare faces and heads to minimize insect and bacteria infestation.

Smaller birds that eat carrion may feed in flocks, and large numbers can help deter other predators from taking over the carcass. Birds may also gorge on carrion, storing the meat in their crops and leaving quickly to digest in a safer place. Unfortunately, birds are not able to detect lead contamination or other toxic contamination in a carcass, and many vultures and large raptors are killed each year by this type of poisoning. Switching to non-lead ammunition can help reduce this threat, and drivers should also be aware of carcasses alongside roads and slow down to avoid hitting any feeding birds.

Also Known As:

Road Kill, Carcass, Remains, Offal