Tagged turkey vulture indicates a research bird

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KANSAS CITY Mo -- The next time you see a turkey vulture perched on a roost, soaring on air currents or munching on a rotting carcass, check the wings.

Joe Ketchum, a private wildlife damage expert in the Kansas City area, was surprised recently to see a turkey vulture with a bright blue tag on its wing with “199”. So Ketchum doubled back on the highway for a second look and noted the number.

He spotted the bird feeding on dead raccoon in a ditch at Raymore, Mo. That’s not unusual. Vultures, which are distinctive with their dark feathers and naked, red heads, help clean up the natural world by eating decaying animals. But Ketchum was curious about the tag so he contacted the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

The tag was placed on vulture No. 199 in Venezuela on Dec. 17, 2008, said David R. Barber, a research biologist at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. It’s part of a nationwide and international study for these large raptors. Biologists put transmitters on some vultures to track them with satellite telemetry. Other vultures were given wing tags that observers could report. The purpose is to learn more about them to prevent population declines that have occurred in other vulture species in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

“We have tagged turkey vultures on their wintering grounds in Venezuela in order to determine from what parts of their range these birds are coming from,” Barber said. “One of the holy grails of migration ecology is ‘migratory connectivity’, linking a population’s breeding and wintering grounds.”

The study will also help scientists know when mortality rates increase for turkey vultures during different seasons, which would aid conservation efforts if they ever become imperiled.

“While turkey vulture populations are large and appear to be stable or increasing,” he said, “the same could be said for old world vultures 20 to 30 years ago, and they have since undergone catastrophic declines.”

Turkey vultures, also called buzzards, are seen throughout Missouri during the summer and in the southern portion of the state during winter.

Ketchum provided the first reported sighting of vulture No. 199 since it was tagged more than two years ago. Two other vultures tagged during the project have been reported in Missouri, Barber said, one in Newton County and one in Worth County. The latter bird was also reported in Atchison, Kan.

Turkey vultures tagged for the tracking program may have blue, red or yellow wing tags. Anyone spotting a turkey vulture with a tag is asked to report it to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Please note the location, which wing the tag was on, the color, the number if possible, the bird’s behavior such as flying, perched or feeding, and whether it was with any other vultures.

To report tagged birds, send an e-mail to barber@hawkmtn.org or call 570-943-3411, ext. 105.