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New tracking devices to aid in continuing study of black vultures

Chad Neil, a wildlife biologist for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services-West Virginia and part of the 167th AW’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team, holds a black vulture that has been fitted with a transmitting device in Martinsburg, W.Va., Aug. 18, 2020.

Chad Neil, a wildlife biologist for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services-West Virginia and part of the 167th AW’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team, holds a black vulture that has been fitted with a transmitting device in Martinsburg, W.Va., Aug. 18, 2020.

A transmitter is carefully tied to the back of a black vulture in Martinsburg, W.Va., Aug.18, 2020. Black vultures have been roosting near the airfield at the 167th Airlift Wing since 2017 and pose a threat to local air traffic. The transmitter will provide information about the bird’s behavior and flight patterns, helping to mitigate aviation hazards.

A transmitter is carefully tied to the back of a black vulture in Martinsburg, W.Va., Aug.18, 2020. Black vultures have been roosting near the airfield at the 167th Airlift Wing since 2017 and pose a threat to local air traffic. The transmitter will provide information about the bird’s behavior and flight patterns, helping to mitigate aviation hazards.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. --

As part of a continuing study of black vultures in the area surrounding Shepherd Field in Martinsburg, W.Va., home of the 167th Airlift Wing and the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport, five of the large scavenger birds were fitted with transmitting devices, August 18.

The 167th, Argos Cement Plant and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services teamed up in 2018 to study the black vultures in an effort to mitigate potential aviation hazards.

Since then, nearly 300 black vultures have been tagged in the area as part of the study which was prompted when the birds began roosting on Argos property in 2017. With Argos located just 2 miles from the airfield, black vultures flying in that vicinity pose a threat to local air traffic.

In 2019, five black vultures on the Argos property were fitted with telemetry devices to monitor the birds’ movements, altitudes, airspeeds vertical velocities and activity levels.

However, according to Chad Neil, a wildlife biologist for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services-West Virginia and part of the 167th AW’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team, the original devices didn’t provide sufficient data attributable to a combination of circumstances.

“Due to the social habits of these birds- roosting in large flocks- the solar panel on the devices got covered in fecal matter which overtime deteriorated them and possibly affected the ability to recharge the internal batteries.  Another factor was the amount of data we were collecting was rather large and required a lot of battery power. It’s believed during the winter months with less sunlight and cooler temps, the batteries reached a point where they couldn’t keep up,” Neil said.

The new devices, donated by the company who provided the original ones, have a slightly different design and added protection for the solar panels, Neil said.

Of the nearly 300 black vultures tagged in Martinsburg, 197 have been sighted and reported, some more than once, according to Neil.

“We have had [Martinsburg] Berkeley County birds reported as far north as New Jersey and northern parts of Pennsylvania and far south as just below Richmond, Va.  One of the original transmitter birds made it to Raleigh, N.C., before it stopped transmitting,” Neil said.

Argos’ environmental manager, Andrew Frye, solicited biologists with Conservation Science Global to assist with the black vulture research. Adam Duerr, director of research and senior wildlife biologist for Conservation Science Global, affixed the telemetry devices to black vultures and is analyzing the data from the devices in addition to the reports from the tagged birds.

The information provided by the tracking devices and the reported sightings will be used to identify high risk areas and aid pilots in their risk assessments and hopefully avoid aircraft vulture strikes.

Anyone who spots a tagged black vulture in the area is asked to send an email to vulture.tag@gmail.com with the location of the sighting, a tag number if visible and any behavioral information, or go to https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/bblretrv/.

Black vultures are a protected migratory bird that tend to soar in flocks to spot their food – mostly carrion, and roost together in trees or transmission towers and nest in dark cavities. It’s believed the black vultures are attracted to Argos Cement Plant because of its tall tower, deep quarry and heat thermals created from the large kiln on site.

Black vulture aircraft strikes cost the U.S. Air Force more than $75 million from fiscal years 1995-2016, second only to the Canada goose.