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Booming Turkey Vulture Populations Could Be Another Sign Climate Change Is Circling Kansas

A vulture roosting on a tree branch.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A turkey vulture

Warmer weather and plentiful roadkill have created a welcoming home for turkey vultures in parts of Kansas. And once they find a place to roost, there's not much towns can do to make them leave.

HAYS, Kansas — For the past five years or so, former 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,” Hardy 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.

Courtesy Randall Hardy
Dozens of turkey vultures roost in a tree near former state Sen. Randall Hardy's Salina home.

Unwelcoming committees

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.”

Not everyone shares Otte’s sunny view. Some people are bothered by the bird's ominous appearance. For others, it’s the smell.

About 40 miles west of Salina, Ellsworth Treasurer Angela Mueller said the town often gets complaints from residents who are tired of seeing and smelling the dozens of vultures that roost around town.

“They leave a mess. They're not clean. … They smell because they’re eating the dead critters,” Mueller said. “People don't like them.”

So, the central Kansas town of roughly 3,000 people has tried to take matters into its own hands, with mixed results.

In 2019, city administrator Scott Moore presented the city council with a plan for installing LED lights to shine on one water tower that had become a favorite haunt of the vultures. His idea was the lights would keep the birds away, but Mueller said that didn’t pan out.

“They put in lights,” Mueller said. “But they do nothing to discourage birds.”

So the town turned to sonic persuasion. Ellsworth police have begun using noisemakers that create a racket loud enough to startle the vultures away from the water tower. Mueller compared the sound to the boom of a firework.

But she said the noise usually just sends the birds to the town’s other water tower or to a nearby tree. And over time, the vultures have gotten so used to the sound that they’re not scared anymore.

“We just have to live with them,” she said. “This is their home station. They chose Ellsworth.”

Warm meat

Otte of the K-State extension office said researchers are still trying to pinpoint why vulture populations are growing so rapidly. But he said human causes, like climate change and urban sprawl, could be contributing to the birds’ surge in Kansas.

Vultures only stay part of the year here, generally from March through November. In the winter, they head south in search of warmer temperatures — not for their comfort, but for their cuisine.

“For dead animals to start decaying,” Otte said, “you need to have heat.”

Turkey vultures have the largest olfactory systems of all birds and can smell decaying flesh from over a mile away. But during colder months, Kansas roads can’t warm roadkill enough to get it rotting.

So historically, winter sightings of turkey vultures in Kansas were virtually unheard of. But Otte said climate change could eventually make Kansas a welcoming year-round habitat.

“About every other year, we've got a bird showing up in January or maybe lingering into December,” he said. “So it's already happening.”

The growth and spread of civilization can also invite vultures to set up shop in cities and towns where maybe there didn’t used to be much rotting meat lying around.

“We have more cars, and cars and animals have collisions on the roadways,” Otte said. “That provides more food for them.”

And once turkey vultures find a favorite place to roost, they remember it. Otte described the birds as “site-faithful.” That means they tend to return to the same spot every year, whether it’s Hardy’s tree in Salina or a water tower in Ellsworth.

In extreme cases, Otte said homeowners who want to discourage the birds from roosting nearby could remove dead trees from their property. But ultimately, he said Kansans should learn to live with — and maybe even appreciate — the new neighbors.

“We've got to get past that stigma that they're associated with death,” he said. “They're necessary.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly failed to say that Randall Hardy is no longer in the state Senate.

David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org
Copyright 2021 High Plains Public Radio. To see more, visit High Plains Public Radio.

David Condos is the host of the KCUR Studios podcast Up From Dust, and covers the environment for KUER in Utah.

David was formerly the Kansas News Service reporter in western Kansas. Email him at dcondos@kuer.org.
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