Turkey vultures are scavengers, feeding almost exclusively on carrion. They find food by sight or with their highly developed sense of smell, which they use to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the decay of dead animals.
They may occasionally eat some rotten plant material (pumpkins, coconut, palm fruit, …).
In Québec, turkey vultures’ diet consists usually of the carcasses of small animals (groundhogs, shrews and occasionally domestic animals), as their bill is too small to cut through the tough skin of larger animals. However, they can take advantage of larger carcasses if they had time to putrefy or if they have been opened by either carnivorous mammals or road kills.
Turkey vultures are also known to visit dump sites, where they find abundant food; this has increased their numbers and expanded their range.
In tropical regions, they cooperate with other native scavenger birds of the same family. Black vultures do not have a good sense of smell, but their more powerful bill allows them to open up larger carcasses with thicker hides. By working together, the two species can expand their opportunities for food. Once they have eaten its fill, turkey vultures may not eat or drink for up to 15 days.