Vulture boom may signal climate change

Some view turkey vultures as harbingers of death, and indeed, they may signal something that threatens all life on earth: climate change.



July 15, 2021 - 8:21 AM

HAYS, Kansas — For the past five years or so, state Sen. Randall Hardy has watched a few dozen turkey vultures roost in a tree next to his garage.

He can tell when the migratory birds return to his central Salina neighborhood each spring as the colors begin to change.

“The roof is colored with white,” the District 24 Republican said, “and if you aren’t careful where you park your car in the driveway, it can change colors overnight as well.”

The vultures clean up dead carcasses, the carrion that make up their diet, well enough. But with avian scavengers comes all that whitish guano.

Hardy hears some grumbling around town from others who see the vultures as ugly, a nuisance. One neighbor has tried to scare the birds away by clanging two garbage can lids together. But that’s only a temporary fix.

Each year, the turkey vultures return. And Hardy welcomes them.

“We’re richer, frankly, in Salina for having them,” Hardy said. “The rain will take care of the poop.”

If you’ve noticed more of these foreboding figures circling in the skies above you lately, you’re not imagining things. It might have something to do with climate change and the stench of rotting flesh.

Chuck Otte, secretary of the Kansas Bird Records Committee and a Kansas State University extension agent in Geary County, described the scene in central Salina as one that’s become increasingly common across central and western Kansas.

“Go back into the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Otte said, “and we just didn’t see that many turkey vultures in urban areas, even small towns.”

But over the past two decades, committees of vultures have begun to descend upon Kansas in greater numbers.

While other species of birds have seen their populations freefall, Otte said the population of turkey vultures has doubled nationwide since 1966. And because the birds are federally protected, harming them or their nests is prohibited.

So for anyone in Kansas who wishes the vultures in their area would just go somewhere else, there’s not a lot they can do. But that hasn’t stopped some towns from trying.

With six-foot black wingspans and featherless red heads, turkey vultures are hard to miss. They’re often seen perched by the dozens on water towers, trees, barns and anywhere else they can get a high vantage point to spot their favorite meal: rotting meat.

Their taste for dead animals often gives vultures a bad rap. But Otte said that even in their growing numbers, the scavengers play a vital role in the ecosystem by gobbling up carcasses before they spread disease.

“They are nature’s cleanup crew,” Otte said. “I often wonder how many feet of dead animals we’d have if it wasn’t for turkey vultures.”

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