For the past five years or so, former State Senator Randall Hardy has observed a few dozen turkey vultures perching in a tree next to his garage.
He can tell when migrating birds return to his central Salina neighborhood each spring when the colors start to change.
“The roof is white in color,” the District 24 Republican said, “and if you’re not careful where you park your car in the driveway, it can change color overnight as well.”
Vultures quite well clean the dead carcasses, the carrion that makes up their diet. But with avian scavengers comes all that whitish guano.
Hardy hears growls in town from others who see the vultures as ugly, a nuisance. A neighbor tried to scare off the birds by slamming two lids of garbage cans together. But this is only a temporary solution.
Every year the turkey vultures return. And Hardy welcomes them.
“We’re richer, frankly, in Salina to have them,” Hardy said. “The rain will take care of the poo.
If you’ve noticed more of these eerie figures circling the skies above you lately, you wouldn’t be imagining it. It could have something to do with climate change and the stench of rotting flesh, the Kansas News Service reports.
Chuck Otte, secretary of the Kansas Bird Records Committee and Kansas State University extension officer in Geary County, described the scene in central Salina as increasingly common in central and western Kansas.
“Go back to the ’80s and’ 90s,” Otte said, “and we just haven’t seen so many turkey vultures in urban areas, even in small towns.”
But over the past two decades, vulture committees have started to invade Kansas in greater numbers.
While other bird species have seen their populations drop freely, Otte said the Turkey Vulture population has doubled nationally since 1966. And because the birds are federally protected, it is forbidden to harm them or to harm them.
So for anyone in Kansas who wants the vultures in their area to go elsewhere, there isn’t much they can do. But that hasn’t stopped some cities from trying.
With a black wingspan of six feet and featherless red heads, turkey vultures are hard to miss. They are often seen perched by the dozen 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 reputation. But Otte said even in increasing numbers, scavengers play a vital role in the ecosystem by gobbling up carcasses before spreading disease.
“They are nature’s cleanup team,” Otte said. “I often wonder how many feet of dead animals we would have without the Turkey Vulture. “
Not everyone shares the sunny view of Otte. Some people are embarrassed by the bird’s threatening appearance. For others, it’s the smell.
About 40 miles west of Salina, Ellsworth Treasurer Angela Mueller said the town often receives complaints from residents tired of seeing and smelling the dozens of vultures roosting the town.
“They leave a mess. They are not clean. … They smell because they eat the dead creatures, ”Mueller said. “People don’t like them. “
So the central Kansas city of about 3,000 people tried to take matters into their own hands, with mixed results.
In 2019, City Manager Scott Moore presented City Council with a plan to install LED lights to light up a water tower that had become a favorite haunt for vultures. His idea was that the lights would keep the birds away, but Mueller said that didn’t work.
“They turned on lights,” Mueller said. “But they don’t do anything to deter the birds.”
The city therefore turned to sound persuasion. Ellsworth Police have started using noisemakers that create a loud enough noise to keep the vultures away from the water tower. Mueller compared the sound to the bang of fireworks.
But she said the noise usually sends the birds to the other water tower in town or to a tree nearby. And over time, the vultures have become so used to the sound that they are no longer afraid.
“We just have to live with them,” she said. “It’s their home station. They chose Ellsworth.
Otte from the K-State Extension Office said researchers are still trying to determine why vulture populations are increasing so rapidly. But he said human causes, like climate change and urban sprawl, could be contributing to the rise of birds in Kansas.
The vultures only stay here part of the year, usually from March to November. In winter, they head south in search of warmer temperatures, not for their comfort, but for their cooking.
“In order for dead animals to start decomposing,” said Otte, “you have to have heat.”
Red-headed vultures have the largest olfactory system of any bird and can smell rotting flesh from over a mile away. But during the colder months, Kansas roads can’t heat the road enough to rot.
So, historically, winter sightings of turkey vultures in Kansas were virtually unheard of. But Otte said climate change could eventually make Kansas a year-round welcoming habitat.
“About every two years we have a bird that appears in January or maybe lingers in December,” he said. “So this is already happening. “
The growth and spread of civilization may also invite vultures to settle in towns and villages where there may not have been much rotten meat lying around.
“We have more cars, and cars and animals have collisions on the roads,” Otte said. “It provides them with more food.”
And once turkey vultures find a favorite place to roost, they remember it. Otte described the birds as “faithful to the site”. This means they tend to come back to the same place every year, whether it’s Hardy’s Tree in Salina or a Water Tower in Ellsworth.
In extreme cases, Otte said homeowners who wish to discourage 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 have to overcome this stigma that they are associated with death,” he said. “They are necessary.”