Originally created 11/20/00

Student studies besmirched birds



JACKSON - Studying vultures is a piece of cake. But you have to catch them first - a task Travis DeVault knows is easier said than done.

"They're wary, but eventually - and occasionally - they'll go into the trap," the Purdue University student said. "But it's never easy."

The Savannah River Ecology Lab doctoral student moved to Aiken this year to launch a three-year study of one of North America's least-favorite birds.

First off, please don't call them buzzards.

"The correct name is vulture," he said. "Buzzard is a word used in Great Britain for the hawk, and it somehow came to be used for vultures here."

Other large birds - such as the bald eagle - have been studied to death. But not the vulture.

"They're extremely understudied," he said.

And underappreciated, too.

"Very little is known about how they live," he said. "It's almost like researchers, historically, have been `above' studying vultures."

Data from the project will be used by the Air Force to refine Bird Avoidance Models - computer programs designed to reduce bird strikes on military aircraft.

Approximately 3,000 bird strikes are recorded by the Air Force each year, Mr. DeVault said, and 20 percent of those are vulture related. In the past five years, five aircraft were destroyed because of bird strikes.

The Air Force doesn't like the idea of vultures bouncing off expensive aircraft such as F-16s and stealth bombers, he said. "If you just bust a canopy, that can still be tens of thousands of dollars."

Vultures, with wingspans of 51/2 feet, are a threat to aircraft because they spend so much of their lives soaring, using thermal energy and heat to hold them aloft.

The objective of the study is to define flight behavior.

"We want to know when they fly, how high and what the variables - time, habitat, weather - have to do with everything," Mr. DeVault said.

But to study them, one has to catch them. Mr. DeVault spends a few mornings each week huddled in a blind grasping a long nylon rope attached to the door of a wire cage baited with the vulture's favorite food - road kill.

"They're not picky, but they prefer something fresh to something really decomposed," he said. "It has to be just right."

Once he has captured the birds, Mr. DeVault wrestles them into submission before attaching a tiny radio transmitter to each vulture. So far, Mr. DeVault has wired six birds, with plans to boost that number to 20 by year's end.

The sensors determine whether the birds are perched or flying, track their path through their home range and help estimate soaring altitudes.

Vultures are fascinating creatures, he said, and will travel great distances in search of food.

"Carrion is a very ephemeral and unpredictable food source," he said. "You never know where it will turn up."

There are two types of vultures in the South: turkey vultures and black vultures.

"The turkeys have an acute sense of smell: They can locate small carrion - like mice or even a lizard - from miles away," Mr. DeVault said.

The black vultures, however, don't have such a tuned-in nose. But they're not stupid, either.

"A lot of times you'll see black vultures flying and circling above the turkey vultures, watching to see when they find food," Mr. DeVault said.

Although long lumped into the "bird of prey" category with raptors such as eagles and hawks, the huge birds are now considered by scientists to be closer to storks.

"They're really not predators," he said. "They're sometimes blamed for livestock deaths, but they're mostly scavengers."

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.