In any field project, there is nothing more exhilarating, exhausting, and time-consuming than trapping animals. Vultures are no exception. Two and half busy weeks and I am still three vultures short. That said, it has been an amazing time and we have been able to put out 12 GSM-GPS units onto seven Ruppell’s vultures, three African white-backed vultures, and two Lappet-faced vultures. As usual, the Lappet-faced vultures continue to be the trickiest to trap. Not only are there fewer of them, but they prefer smaller carcasses (which are more difficult to trap at), they arrive late (which means you are more likely to catch someone else first), and they are a bit more shy. The key with Lappets is to find some really hungry, aggressive individual, but in and of itself that is rather tricky.
So how does one trap a vulture in the first place? The process is surprisingly simple. Step 1: Find a carcass, preferably with vultures on it. Step 2: Gently move the birds off using the car and put the trap down (the trap is just nooses that are attached to the carcass using parachute cord – it has to be strong after all). Step 3: Drive away and watch closely. Generally if you are going to catch one it will be fast. Usually within a few minutes, the birds are back squabbling over the meat and a few minutes after that and you’ll have one.
Once we get the bird the process is pretty straightforward. The first priority, if the trapped bird is of a species/age that we are looking for, we attach a GSM-GPS unit. These incredible little devices will allow us to follow the bird for up to a year – seeing everywhere it goes, how fast it travels, and even the altitude of its flight. Unlike satellite units, these newer devices use the cell phone coverage to transmit the data back to the user (i.e. me). So effectively I get text messages from all the tagged birds once a day. Next we take blood, primarily because we are interested in their immune system. How can an animal literally stick its head into and consume the rotting flesh of the another (who quite likely died of a disease itself) without every getting sick? This is the conundrum of the vulture and we are hoping that by studying their powerful immune systems we might gain some insights that could help treat or cure bacterial infections like anthrax and staph in the future. Then we release the bird. No drugs are used during the process, so you are dealing with a chirping 15 lb. bird that is fully awake for the fifteen to twenty minutes that it usually takes to get everything done. Fortunately I have had some great help – thanks to the likes of two Peregrine Fund employees (Evan and Matt), Keith Bildstein from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, my advisor Dan Rubenstein, various other unwitting volunteers, and of course my field assistant Jon.
So this is how it is supposed to work, but when you are working with animals you always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Given that we have now trapped over thirty vultures, there have invariably been some adventures. But I will save those for another blog.