Vultures the Next Wave in Criminal Investigation?

The name Sherlock is taking on a whole new meaning. Now a household name in Germany, the rest of the world is just getting introduced. Normally native to North and South America, Sherlock the turkey vulture can be found in Walsrode bird park in northern Germany, the largest bird reserve in the world. But unlike the other residents, this raptor has very important job to do.

The goal is to make this tame vulture into a missing persons detective. Using the bird’s natural instincts, Sherlock may be the first of his kind in the world to sniff out human bodies for the police force. A GPS device attached to his leg can track his movements and hopefully lead investigators to the scene of the crime more effectively than dogs. Officer Rainer Herman reports the plan came from “a colleague of mine [who] got the idea from watching a nature program.”

Trainer German Alonso is teaching the 5 year old bird to associate the smell of decomposing human flesh with delicious reward. Sherlock is presented with small bowls of meat next to a cloth previously used to cover a corpse at a mortuary. Visitors at the park can see him perform this trick as his trainer tries to ready him for more ambitious tasks.

The advantage of vultures over dogs is the sheer distance a 6-foot wing span can cover “as the crow flies.” Unlike most raptors who rely only on keen eyesight to hunt, vultures possess an adept sense of smell, enabling them to detect animal remains from 3000 ft high. In difficult terrain like dense woodland, often a prime location for dumping bodies, the bird’s flight becomes quite the time saver. The same area would quickly tire out terrestrial-bound dogs, who need recurrent breaks from the search to recoup.

The results have yet to be seen and several hurdles stand in the way of ultimate success. Vultures search for food in groups, so one trained bird isn’t enough. Last year two chicks called Miss Marple and Columbo were obtained from a breeder in Austria, and now join Sherlock in training. But the birds are stubborn, and Alonso reports “They fight with each other like crazy and Sherlock prefers searching on foot to flying.”

Not to mention the worry that the vultures will revert to their natural behavior and peck at the bodies they find, something Alonso hopes to overcome as well.

Even without these challenges, sniffing dog detectives won’t be out of a job anytime soon. The Pentagon announced last year that dogs are still 30% more effective at detecting explosives than even the most innovative bomb seeking technology developed, and they’re a lot cheaper too. Turkey vultures are rare to find in captivity, and need to be tame in order to work with, so even if Alonso and his trio are successful, it will likely be a slow trend to spread. Nevertheless, there is interest from nearby countries to this new and potentially effective crime resource.

Interesting Turkey Vulture Facts:

The often described “ugly” bald head of the turkey vulture serves a very important hygienic purpose. Eating from the carcass of large animals often requires the bird to delve its head deep inside. Meat would inevitably get stuck in feathers and serve as a breeding ground for the bacteria that comes along with it. A bald head is simply cleanlier.

Another hygienic oddity is the vulture’s tendency to urinate on its own legs. The high acid content of the urine sterilizes their legs and feet, often soiled with bacteria from the carcass the bird was standing in. Urine will also cool the bird as it evaporates, a relief for hot climate dwellers.

The legend of vultures “projectile vomiting” is only partially true. Projectile is an over-exaggeration, but a vulture will regurgitate when threatened or agitated, and in the wild a vulture is most vulnerable while feeding on carrion. Being gorging animals, vomiting is thought to be a quick way to lessen its weight, making a quick flight an easier method of escape.

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