Curious Nature: Scavengers like coyotes, turkey vultures and crows, are ecosystem recyclers (column) | VailDaily.com

Curious Nature: Scavengers like coyotes, turkey vultures and crows, are ecosystem recyclers (column)

Bella Harris
Curious Nature

We might think of coyotes as hunters, and while they do hunt small mammals, they are opportunistic feeders and will scavenge when given the chance.

We often describe animals by their hunting strategies, and large grazers and big predators fascinate us. But what about the animals that choose not to track and take their own food?

Some species have chosen to adapt their brains rather than their brawn and have learned to let other animals do the hard work when it comes to feeding. Scavenger species often do not kill or forage their food and instead steal from other animals. While species such as the mountain lion have limited and specific diets, scavengers such as raccoons or turkey vultures are opportunistic feeders and have wide and diverse diets.

Scavenger species here in the Eagle Valley have not only learned to manipulate other species' dietary habits but also take advantage of human lifestyles, whether we notice it or not. If you have ever witnessed an American crow swooping in to steal trash from a dumpster, a red squirrel taking food from under a picnic table or a red-tailed hawk ripping meat out of a road-kill deer, then you have witnessed scavenger species in action.

Being a scavenger means you need to be willing to take and eat whatever food you find, no matter how old or strange it is. Scavenger species have learned to eat just about anything and can handle digesting even the most unpalatable foods they find. However, fresh food is preferable to a scavenger, so they have learned to be exceptionally patient and are masters at the waiting game.

After a mountain lion makes a deer kill in the Rocky Mountains, we may witness coyotes, hawks and vultures all waiting until the lion has had its fill to then jump in and feed the moment the lion leaves the carcass. After the large scavengers leave the kill, smaller scavengers such as ants, beetles and flies will come in and finish off the meat.

The scavenging doesn't stop there, as many rodent species such as the deer mouse will gnaw on the bones left from the deer carcass in order to fulfill their calcium needs.

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This scenario is a perfect example of why scavenger species are so vital and important for preserving the health of our local ecosystems. Scavengers make sure that available food (i.e. energy) does not go to waste. It is unlikely that one animal will be able to take full advantage of a kill, and scavengers make sure the kill does not rot and burden the ecosystem for too long.

While it may be an annoyance to us when scavengers take our own food, we need to understand that we are an intricate part of the natural world around us and these animals are simply taking advantage of the food sources around them.

It is our job to help scavengers stay healthy by locking up our trash, storing our food properly and refraining from feeding wild animals. These practices can help scavengers look to natural habitat for food sources, instead of our businesses and homes. Scavengers are not only important for ecosystem health, but they have some fascinating habits, as well. So the next time you are outside, try to find a scavenger of your own, working hard as an ecosystem recycler.

Bella Harris is a naturalist intern at Walking Mountains Science Center. She recently graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor's degree in wildlife conservation. She loves to study urban wildlife ecology and human-wildlife interactions.