How Powerful Is Vulture Smell Exactly?
Compared To Humans?

Do you think about how vultures manage to locate dead animals to prey on? Keep on reading find out more about their strange sense of smell.

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David A. Swanson

October 03, 2021

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What’s This Post About?

Whether or not you approve of vultures’ eating habits, it’s undeniable that they are nature’s ultimate recyclers. Vultures devour the meat of animals that have died of illnesses, removing sources of lethal infections that might be transmitted to people. Vultures also remove animal carcasses off our highways, woods, and fields.

You might be wondering how these animals scavenge across fields to spot dead animals that they can consume. Most of us know that vultures have excellent vision. They are said to see a three-foot corpse on the vast fields from four kilometers away. However, how many of us know about their powerful sense of smell?

Turkey vultures can locate food from 1 mile away, even if it is hidden under a mound of leaves. This is what sets them apart from their competitors, be it other vultures or general scavengers. More so, what isn’t visible to sight can be smelled by them, giving them a head start.


How Strong Is A Vulture’s Sense Of Smell?

They will hover about in the sky until they discover the source of the distinctive sulfurous chemical compounds emitted by decomposing flesh, which they smell from the height that they are at.


The vultures detect those columns and fly hundreds of feet up on the air currents. They’ve been observed to go 30-50 miles in looking for food. They can detect carcasses from almost a mile away, which is highly unusual for birds. When one turkey vulture discovers a favorable updraft, others will follow.


The term ‘kettle’ refers to a flock of turkey vultures that gather and circle together, resembling ‘water whirling in a pot’.

Why Is A Vulture’s Sense Of Smell Strong?


The turkey vulture, found throughout North America, has long been known to locate remains by smelling them. Physiological examination reveals that the turkey vulture has a strong sense of smell thanks to the expansion of its sensory system.

Turkey vultures have a big olfactory bulb, a part of the forebrain allocated to scent in animals, as well as a prominent nasal cavity. Turkey vultures have a four-fold larger olfactory bulb and double the mitral cells than black vultures, despite the black vulture’s brain being 20% larger. Compared to 143 other bird species, the turkey vulture had the largest olfactory bulb in brain capacity.

Graves is also curious about what vultures sense in the smell of corpses. Although ethyl mercaptan seems to be one cause, the scents emanating from carcasses contain lots of compounds. Thus, it’s unclear if Turkey Vultures are focused on a single odor or a combination of aromas.

Fresh meat vs. Rotten Meat


David Houston conducted research in 1979 on the effectiveness of Turkey Vultures in detecting carrion by smell. The analysis was carried out in the forest areas of Panama’s Barro Colorado Island.

He observed that Turkey Vultures in tropical woodlands depend almost entirely on their ability to smell and detect carcasses by laying out dead birds ranging from fresh to four days old.


He discovered that Turkey Vultures consume only a tiny proportion of the new corpses during his research. On the other hand, the ratio of Turkey Vultures that came down to four-day-old carcasses was likewise low. They swiftly discovered the bodies one to three days old, even if they were hidden beneath the forest cover.

This behavior gave rise to several questions.

  1. Why did Turkey Vultures appear to be less effective in locating four-day-old carcasses with a pungent smell?
  2. Was it because the older, stronger-smelling baits had a unique odor that the vultures couldn’t detect as quickly as the newer, milder baits?
  3. Did they prefer meat that wasn’t so rotten?


Nine sites were bated with two corpses each to solve the questions. One of the two baits at each location would be one day old, while the other would be five days old. When vultures are offered the option between fresher and older corpses, Houston discovered that they pick the newest.

Turkey Vultures were seen to refuse older, more rotting meat a significant amount of the time. In the end, it was determined that the deteriorated state of the carcasses, rather than the harsher stench, was what kept the vultures away.

Do All Vultures Have A Strong Sense Of Smell?


Some of the seven New World vulture breeds have such acute senses of smell that they can detect the aroma of a dead carcass from over a mile away. The turkey vulture, often referred to as the buzzard, may, for example, focus on a decaying rat under a mound of foliage.

Greater and Lesser Vultures also appear to rely on their ability to smell to forage food similarly, and King Vultures may also utilize scent. These creatures must be able to discover carrion in woods where the foliage hides carcasses.

The black vulture and king vulture are descended from relatively different family lines. They hunt for food, mostly in open areas. However, since they lack the same well-developed sense of smell, they substitute this shortcoming with a smart alteration:

They observe their cousins’ activity as they smell out carrion from a distance of many kilometers. Then they move in, chase away the other vultures, and consume the food.

Turkey Vultures Vs. Black Vultures


From the southeastern United States to central South America, turkeys and black vultures compete over corpses, using different foraging techniques. Turkey vultures fly low in the sky to identify foul-smelling drifts rising from animal corpses, but black vultures fly higher to enhance their viewing angles.

Turkey vultures hunt in pairs or small groups, but black vultures scout in large groups. Turkey vultures can locate more miniature, hidden food such as dead rabbits and snakes by scent detection, but black vultures prefer larger carcasses since they are more visually visible.

Benefits Of Having A Powerful Smell

The turkey vulture’s excellent sense of smell offers it an advantage in minimizing direct competitors: it can find dead animals in the densely forested region that would be difficult for an eyesight-oriented black vulture to scavenge in.

It will detect relatively small snacks that would go unnoticed by a black vulture and thus would not feed a large scavenging flock. Even if the other birds see it, these vultures can reach the meat quicker, giving it a jumpstart.

How To Spot A Vulture?

Vultures have beaks meant to dig deep into a corpse, and their smooth skin makes cleaning a lot easier than absorbent feathers.


Turkey vultures may be found across much of the United States and Central and South America. They are easily identified by their large wingspans and stunning heads and may be seen hovering continuously and elegantly. But, unfortunately, they are sometimes misidentified as eagles!

Spotting and identifying a vulture is important if you want to study their eating and foraging habits. Apart from their enormous 6-foot wings and flying style, Turkey vultures are not the same as eagles. More so, since their bills and feet aren’t built to hunt or kill animals, they eat carcasses and desert victims instead.

The most distinguishing feature of these creatures is their red heads, which are entirely bald and devoid of hair. This makes it safer to eat really disgusting carrion since nothing sticks to it.


Keep Reading!

Vulture smells are more powerful than you can imagine. They can smell carcasses from miles away, giving them an edge over other vultures and scavengers who rely on sight.

Just because their sense of smell is strong does not mean they are attracted to pungent smells. For example, it has been observed that they prefer fresher meat over old meat regardless of a more pungent odor.

Since you’re now more well-informed on how powerful vulture smell is, read this exciting post to learn about 11 remarkable facts and FAQs about crows flying.

11 Remarkable Facts and FAQs about Crows Flying

Curious to learn about the flying rituals of the boisterous crows? Here's all you need to know about the flights of these gregarious species.

David A. Swanson Picture

By David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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David A. Swanson Picture

David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!



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