Police Vultures (The Animal Kind)

No, I’m not talking about the human vultures that you will find in any human organisation. I’m talking about flying vultures that are under training with German police. It is planned, as should be quite obvious when reading any vulture’s job description, to use them in the search for dead persons in rugged terrain.


We are used to dogs being used for search missions, but pigs and rats are also used in a similar way. Now German police are training vultures as search agents. Three vultures from an Austrian zoo are in training; they have been named, too, as Sherlock, Miss Marple, and Columbo. Don't let your prejudice run away with you, vultures are a very useful species of birds employed in the recycling business.

The vultures in training are Cathartes aura (Turkey Vultures), a species that combines a fine nose (or rather beak) with a good memory for faces making them amenable to handler training. Turkey Vultures make their home in the Americas from the very south of South America to the north of the United States. They are the main cleaning force on American freeways living of animals being driven over by motorists. This food source has allowed them to migrate north from Mexico over the last decades and expand from their initial.

The vultures’ sense of smell is highly developed. They are able to sniff out a dead mouse from 1,000 meters (3,300 ft) up in the air. This ability makes them very valuable detectives in mountainous areas and other hard to reach locations. They are able to distinguish the stench of a dead mouse from that of a cat or a human. The stench of decomposition would seem to be distinctive to different species to help the vultures in their search for the correct kind of supper.

If you think that three vultures will be able to check out three locations, you’re wrong. They will form an air wing unit as they are not very brave on their own. But they become braver with numbers, another parallel with humans, I suppose. And I don’t know how they will be kept from nibbling the evidence, either.

The vultures have now been in training more than a year; and success seems elusive. Sherlock seems particular to conducting his searches on foot rather than from up high, but maybe he is suffering from vertigo. Their handler said that the team spirit was not too good either as the three tend to get at each other like drunken sailors. But maybe that’s just building proper team spirit vulture way.

The trial with police in Lower Saxony in Germany will continue. The vultures were mere fledglings at the start. They are now old enough to go long distance flying and it is hoped that this will better the record. If the plan works, the manoeuvrability of the vultures would by far outshine human and dog search teams as they could cover vast tracts of inaccessible countryside. As an added plus, the vultures are able to find dead material not only in the open countryside, but also in woods and under leaves and thin covers of earth.
Further reading


Kevin Warhol