Achtung! Hire that Vulture!

Sniffer bird: Because of their sense of smell, turkey vultures can help find corpses

Weltvogelpark Walsrode

It’s a scene in old Westerns: a cowboy pans the sky and sees vultures circling the site of a bloody showdown. This predilection for carrion—dead flesh—has captured the imagination of bird trainer German Alonso. At Walsrode Vogel Park, south of Hamburg, Alonso is training a turkey vulture named Sherlock to work with police to find the corpses of missing persons in remote areas. “If it works, time could be saved when looking for dead bodies because the birds can cover a much more vast area than sniffer dogs or humans,” German policeman Rainer Herrmann told reporters.

Turkey vultures are not native to Europe. So why not use a local species? Studies show that turkey vultures can detect the scent of rotting flesh from up to 1,000 m in the air; European vultures rely almost entirely on sight. Concerns have been raised that, finding a body, a turkey vulture will behave instinctively, although one expert has said that a rubber band around its beak might do the trick. Meanwhile, this won’t be the turkey vulture’s first gig. Natural gas companies discovered that by injecting ethyl mercaptan—a foul-smelling chemical also emitted by putrefying animal carcasses—into gas lines, engineers could determine leaks by scouting the lines for circling vultures.

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