Hawk Mountain celebrates vultures on Saturday

Photo by Lauren A. Little September 4, 2010 Vulture Awareness Day Morrie Katz, Director of Development for Red Creek Wildlife Center, shows off Hannibal, an Eastern Turkey Vulture, during a special Vulture Awareness Day presentation held Saturday at Hawk Mountain.

Hawk Mountain will join conservationists worldwide to celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day on Saturday, Sept. 1. The event at the world-famous sanctuary will include a live vulture presentation at noon by Red Creek Environmental Center, a children’s monitoring project at the lookouts, an “Eating like a Vulture” activity, vulture-themed information and merchandise in the Visitor Center, and information about the Sanctuary’s own far-ranging scientific studies.

Hawk Mountain educators hope to illustrate the amazing adaptations of the winged scavengers, including their incredible sense of smell, the ability to soar for hours without flapping, and guts of sheer steel that allow them to digest and destroy disease agents such as cholera and even anthrax. Other carrion-eaters such as rats and dogs would spread contamination whereas the much-maligned vulture reduces or eliminates it. In essence, the birds are nature’s greatest clean-up crew.

At the lookout, children may use a complimentary monitoring card to track the number of black and turkey vultures, and staff and volunteers that day will help to point out the large soaring birds. Everyone on the lookout that day also will be encouraged to watch for wing-tagged vultures, locally-tagged birds that are part of the Sanctuary’s long-term study. Children who participate and turn in their data collection card will be eligible to win a plush vulture.

International Vulture Awareness Day was launched two years ago to draw attention to one of the greatest wildlife catastrophes of recent time: the sudden and massive drop in the tens of millions of vultures that once soared across south Asia and India. Today, three vulture species in India have seen precipitous declines—one as high as 99 percent—caused by toxins in the environment. In Africa, too, vultures are in decline due to deliberate poisoning, loss of habitat and their use in traditional medicines.

In short, Old World vultures (those outside the Americas) are in big trouble, and in response, Hawk Mountain biologists in 2007 launched its own study to build critically-needed baseline data on the winged scavengers. Today, Hawk Mountain is working with partners across the United States and Canada, Central and South America, and in Europe and East Africa to build a better snapshot of vulture biology and movement. The work will allow Sanctuary scientists to recognize similar drops in species numbers should one ever occur here or elsewhere.

The latest research will begin this year on the hooded vulture, the most widespread species of vulture in Africa. Here the Sanctuary hopes to take the first steps in stopping declines on the African continent by providing information on vulture movements, behaviors and habitat needs. The work will take place in four countries across the species range: Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Perhaps the biggest goal of International Vulture Awareness Day is to simply increase appreciation for the birds’ grace, importance, and interesting social behaviors. For example, vultures keep the landscape free of carcasses, which in turn reduces the spread of disease such as anthrax and botulism. Their ability to efficiently remove waste helps to control populations of rats, feral dogs, coyotes and hyenas, which in turn reduces even more disease. For example, when vulture numbers dropped in South Asia and India, the number of wild dogs, cases of rabies and death from rabies increased proportionally.

For more information on International Vulture Awareness Day or Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, please visit www.hawkmountain.org. Here, too, visitors may read updates from researchers in the field on the Sanctuary’s blog, The Vulture Chronicles, and track near-real-time satellite tracking images of our tagged vultures.

Founded in 1934, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is recognized internationally as the world’s first refuge for birds of prey and an international leader in raptor conservation. The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association operates the 2,600-acre mountaintop refuge as a nature-tourism center to fund local to international raptor conservation science and education programs. The Sanctuary welcomes more than 50,000 visitors per year and its membership totals more than 9,000. Non-members pay a trail fee that in turn supports its conservation mission. For more information, please call 610-756-6961.