Turkey vultures feed on carrion, which is dead, decaying animal carcasses. Carrion is often rotten, and it has a foul odor because of bacterial growth. Carrion is the primary food source for scavenger birds, including other species of vultures, ravens, buzzards and bald eagles.
Turkey vultures avoid carrion that has become putrid, and they prefer their meat fresh. Their diet consists of many kinds of animals of various sizes. Turkey vultures are omnivores. On occasion, turkey vultures eat plant materials, such as pumpkins, shoreline vegetation and various crops. They also eat insects, washed-up fish and other invertebrates when necessary. It is extremely rare for a vulture to kill its prey.
Because turkey vultures dispose of meat that wouldn't be eaten otherwise, they help to prevent diseases. This gives them an important ecological role. Turkey vultures seek out their food using their keen sense of smell, hovering over the ground to detect the smell of ethyl mercaptan, which is a gas that animals produce as they begin to decay.
Turkey vultures have such a powerful sense of smell that they can detect meat under the forest canopy of trees. Turkey vultures are usually the first to find food, and other species of vultures and condors follow them to the food source.