Vulture Research at Kennedy
Eric Stolen's job at NASA's Kennedy Space Center is for the birds . . . turkey vultures, to be exact.
The NASA Environmental Management Branch, in collaboration with Dynamac Corp., the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the USDA National Wildlife Research Center, has started a project to improve our understanding of vulture populations at Kennedy.
According to Stolen, for years Kennedy has had vulture concerns, such as damage to property or defecation on bleachers and other common areas. Another concern, of course, is that the vultures can get in the way of launches and landings.
"For years there's been a desire to reduce the number of vultures at Kennedy," Stolen said. "But we have no way of knowing how many vultures live here."
So, black vultures and turkey vultures are being fitted with satellite GPS and radio transmitters, which will allow biologists to track their movements, activity patterns and habitat use.
The black vultures roost in large numbers and are considered the bigger nuisance. Turkey vultures fly at low altitudes and are the bigger risk to aircraft.
Stolen says there are two groups of vultures: old world and new world. The old world types include hawks and eagles. The new world vultures are closely related to storks. The ones we have at Kennedy are of the new world variety.
"The neat thing about new world vultures is they have a good sense of smell," Stolen said.
There currently are 30 black vultures with radio transmitters and two black vultures with satellite GPS transmitters.
In addition, up to 250 vultures will be tagged with white-wing tags on their right wings, each with a unique three-letter code. These tags will allow biologists to study population dynamics and movement patterns throughout the next three to five years.
Stolen says these efforts will improve our understanding of vulture populations at Kennedy, allowing managers to better assess the risk to flight operations and other mission critical activities, as well as better manage nuisance vulture problems. The wing tags are clearly visible on perched birds and can be read using binoculars.
Because of the vultures' large population at Kennedy, Stolen reiterates that the vultures are an important part of the environment we share.
"Because there are so many (vultures) in the geographic area they travel in, we are never going to eliminate them from Kennedy, we're going to have to live with them.
"We can alter our behavior much more easily than we can alter their behavior."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center