Carrion crow – the vulture of the UK?

James McConnell – NatureSpy Wildlife Biologist

Vultures are impressive animals that perform a vital ecosystem role in many parts of the world. They are the ultimate recyclers and help stop the spread of diseases.

Vultures circling above

Their ultra-strong stomach acids can break down deadly bacteria, including anthrax and cholera.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see vultures both in the air and in a feeding frenzy in South Africa several years ago.

Vultures circling above

We came across a male lion leisurely dining on a buffalo calf killed the night before.

Male lion buffalo kill

He eventually left (again, leisurely) and the vultures wasted no time moving in.

Vultures on a lion buffalo kill

The carcass is almost completely shrouded in vultures, but you can just make out the young buffalo’s horns

It’s an experience that’s both gruesome and awesome at the same time. The squawking, shoving and fighting is relentless as each bird tries to get a mouthful.

After the frenzy is over, the carcasses are almost bare, with only bones and hooves left.

Lion kill after vultures

So, what happens to dead animals here in the UK? Do we have any animal that performs a similar role to the vulture?

One animal that surely comes close (as it’s name alludes to) is the carrion crow.

Carrion crow on camera trap

A demonstration of the carrion crow’s inquisitiveness…

This resourceful and intelligent bird is quick to find anything edible. This is what drives it’s curiosity; it is quick to take a closer look at anything it doesn’t recognise too, as you can see above.

But how quick? We put it to the test after happening upon a very freshly killed rabbit (probably by a stoat or cat) one evening.

The NatureSpy dog wonders if he could just pinch the rabbit...

The NatureSpy dog wonders if he could just pinch the rabbit…

We didn’t move the carcass, which was fairly well concealed, and just set two camera traps up as the sun went down and left.

How long until a scavenger showed up? Would a fox or cat steal it in the night?

Sure enough, and as predicted, a carrion crow found the rabbit just as the sun was rising, at 6:22am. The sunrise time that day was 6:02am, so it had taken the crow precisely 20 minutes of daylight to find the dead rabbit. Impressive.

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For the whole day, crows visited the carcass, picking away at what they could.

They lack the sharp beak of the vulture, but can still do a very good job of reaching what they want, as you can see.

Crow eating dead rabbit on camera trap

There was no feeding frenzy, no hustling or squawking. The carrion crow certainly can’t strip a carcass in the same time a group of vultures can, which leaves the bounty open to other scavengers.

And sure enough, one of those other scavengers turned up that night, and the rabbit was gone.

Fox on camera trap taking a dead rabbit

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