Learning more about turkey vultures in Saskatchewan

Watch above: They are often referred to as nature’s cleaner-uppers and over 1200 have been tagged in Saskatchewan. Carly Robinson looks at a study that may keep the turkey vulture population up for decades to come.

SASKATOON – Dr. Stuart Houston and Marten Stoffel have combed most of Saskatchewan in search of a relatively hidden species of bird: the turkey vulture. In the past 12 years, the pair have managed to wing-tag upwards of twelve-hundred young vultures, learning more about the birds then ever before.

Stoffel explains that the turkey vulture, often called ‘natures cleaner-uppers’ because of their ability to digest dead and decaying animal flesh, needs to be researched “because these birds are under-studied, taken for granted and in the past decade or two in India, 90 per cent of vultures have disappeared because of us people.”

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Turkey vultures tagged in Saskatchewan have been tracked migrating as far away as Costa Rica or Venezuela, often remaining in the south until they are old enough to mate. Elsewhere in North America, the vultures often nest in caves or brush piles, but here in Saskatchewan they have found refuge in old abandoned farm houses.

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Houston has been donating his time as well as all of the money necessary to tag these birds. Because of his efforts, Saskatchewan has the most tagged turkey vultures in North America, and the only current active tagging program. However this is the final year of tagging, it’s now time to crunch the numbers and figure out what exactly their finding show about the birds.

Houston says that the plan for the next ten years is to “learn more and find more of them breeding.” He also want to see “how far they spread, and if there is a difference between the males and females now that we have blood and feather samples.” Without these samples, the sex of the bird is relatively undistinguishable.

At age 87, Houston also has his eye on a record. Having banded birds for 73 years, two more years would have him tied for the most years actively tagging birds in North America. To meet this goal, he stays physically fit doing chin ups every day.

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