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Police enlist Turkey Vulture for corpse searches

AFP · 17 May 2010, 09:56

Published: 17 May 2010 09:56 GMT+02:00

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With a face like a turkey, a blood-red head, big beady eyes and large curved beak, Sherlock the vulture is no conventional beauty.

But he could turn out to be very useful for law enforcement, who want to attach global positioning system (GPS) tracking device to the bird and train him to find the corpses of people who have disappeared in remote areas.

"It was a colleague of mine who got the idea from watching a nature programme," policeman Rainer Herrmann told AFP. "If it works, time could be saved when looking for dead bodies because the birds can cover a much vaster area than sniffer dogs or humans."

Most birds rely mainly on sight to locate their supper. But vultures like Sherlock have a keen sense of smell and are able to detect the scent of rotting flesh from 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) up in the air.

He can even find remains in woodland or in thick undergrowth. And unlike sniffer dogs, who need regular breaks, Sherlock is indefatigable and can cover vast tracts of land.

He is being readied for his new mission at Walsrode south of Hamburg, the largest bird park in the world with 650 different species from around the world spread over 24 hectares (60 acres).

The bird, who is more at home soaring over South America's Andes or the Atacama Desert than northern Germany's Lüneburg Heath, is being taught by trainer German Alonso to love the putrid smell of dead human flesh.

Every day Alonso puts pieces of meat in small cups, on top of a strip of cloth - provided by the police - that has been used to cover a corpse. Sherlock's mission is to locate these tasty morsels.

If time allows, Sherlock is persuaded to perform this feat as part of the park's daily shows to its many visitors.

"Sherlock has become pretty well known in Germany. He has been in lots of television programmes and newspaper articles," Alonso says. "Sherlock now has a rough idea of what he has to do."

But the project still has some way to go. Alonso says that it won't become reality until there is a whole squadron of trained vultures with Sherlock in charge ready to take to the skies as a team.

Story continues below…

"But it's hard to get birds, particularly tame, young ones," he said.

Turkey Vultures like Sherlock, also known as Turkey Buzzards, are rare in captivity. And they have to be tame in order to be trained so they have to be raised from chicks.

"What we need now to make progress is a group working together as a team," he said. "If we had a trio, led by Sherlock, then we could attempt more ambitious stuff," he added.

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Your comments about this article

16:43 May 17, 2010 by LancashireLad
If they want to increase the squadron, they need to find Sherlock a girlfriend.

Now then, would you want to be in the area if you saw that squadron circling?
17:32 May 17, 2010 by Prufrock2010
Seems that Peschvogel's finally reappeared. Schade...
19:27 May 17, 2010 by derExDeutsche
These birds are extremely shy. I am amazed that 1 can be trained. A bird like this can travel huge distances, all the need is a slight breeze.

But, I can attest to the fact that they can 'smell' death from very far away. My dogs sometimes kill small animals where I live. and even under a dense canopy of trees, where it would be impossible for them to see anything, these birds will find a dead animal within 2 days.

How a bird like that can smell anything, after having its head in a 5 day old Garbage bag or maggot infested roadkill is a miracle.
21:50 May 17, 2010 by wxman
These interesting birds dominate West Texas like blackbirds and crows do elsewhere. Nothing dead stays there for long.
00:41 May 18, 2010 by ag1985
When Sherlock discovers a dead body, do the police have to rush to get there before he eats the evidence?
06:31 May 18, 2010 by derExDeutsche

no doubt they would!lol

Also, they had better hope there isn't any road kill or Garbage bags around!
21:13 May 18, 2010 by Dan Quixote
Turkey Vultures are very trainable. In several national parks in the US they can be found sitting outside the visitor center snack bar begging for handouts from the tourists. Of course if you scare them they will projectile vomit on you from up to 4m away.
19:44 May 22, 2010 by derExDeutsche
That's trained? They look for the easiest way to get a free meal.

Trained would mean they do something different from what they would normally do.

The only difference that I see in the National Parks you mention, is that those Vultures have lost their fear of Humans.

Is a bear eating out of a cooler at a campground in Yellowstone TRAINED?

They will still fly to anything sufficiently stinky for a bite to eat. With enough luck, maybe a cadaver.
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