Wing partners with local cement plant, USDA to study black vultures

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Emily Beightol-Deyerle
  • 167th Airlift Wing
The 167th Airlift Wing, Argos Cement Plant and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services have teamed up to research black vultures in and around Martinsburg, West Virginia, in an effort to mitigate potential aviation hazards.

About 50 of the black vultures that have taken residence on Argos’ property, located less than two miles from the Martinsburg airfield, have been fitted with a red tag bearing an alphanumeric code on one wing as part of the research into how they move and interact with the local environment.

“The more we can learn about them, the easier they will be to manage,” said Andrew Frye, Argos environmental manager.

Black vulture aircraft strikes cost the Air Force more than $75 million from fiscal years 1995 to 2016, second only to Canada goose aircraft strikes. They are also second in civil aircraft strikes involving human injury.

Chad Neil, a wildlife biologist for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services-West Virginia and part of the 167th AW’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team, said there are more than 100 black vultures roosting on Argos’ property, a mining area since the late 1800s.

According to Frye, the plant’s deep quarry, the 400-plus-foot tower and the heat thermals created by the large kiln on the site create an attractive environment for the black vultures, a protected migratory bird.

They tend to soar in flocks to spot their food—mostly mostly carrion, roost together in trees or transmission towers and nest in dark cavities.

With a wing span up to three feet, black vultures are often seen flying around the top of Argos’ tower.

Neil said he and the 167th AW’s airfield management and flight safety representatives chase them off the airfield daily.

The black vultures began making an appearance on the Argos property in the summer of 2017 and the population has steadily increased, according to Frye.

Frye solicited Neil’s help to catch and tag the birds and also contracted a research biologist to analyze data collected from the tagged vultures.

“This has got to be a concentrated and coordinated effort,” said Frye, who intends to fund telemetry monitors in the future to aid in the research.

Neil and the USDA Wildlife Services obtain Federal Migratory Bird Depredation Permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to tag the black vultures and to take a limited number of them.

The number they are permitted to take is based partly on the population, which Neil said is underestimated in the area.

Black vultures are most common in Central America and the southeastern U.S., but have extended their range beyond the mid-Atlantic region in the last several decades.

Neil said he doesn’t want to euthanize every bird they catch. “They do have their spot in the ecosystem -- cleaning up dead animals and roadkill,” he said.

“In theory, the more birds we can get tagged and dispersed back out there, the more likely they can get seen and reported, the more we can learn,” said Neil.