Not a lot is known about the high-flying turkey vultures that sometimes soar above the Bitterroot Valley.
But, with a little help from the Florence-Carlton School District, MPG Ranch researcher Kate Stone may have taken a step forward in unlocking some of those secrets Friday.
After two weeks of trial and error, the researcher and her helpers finally got lucky when a turkey vulture flew into her trap in the pines just north of the district’s administrative office, and someone pulled the string that slammed the door shut.
The 4-pound bird with sharp beak, distinctive red head and a wingspan of nearly 6 feet was fitted with a tiny radio transmitter and wing tags before it was released. Some of the school district’s students and staff had a chance to get a close-up view before it left.
“When I was holding it, it kind of felt like one of my chickens,” Stone said. “And then when it came time to release and it started flapping its wings, I was amazed at how long they were.”
Researchers with the MPG Ranch and Raptor View Research Institute are working together to attempt to trap 10 turkey vultures this spring. That decision came after they noticed the unusual birds were starting to pop up in photographs taken by trail cameras used in an ongoing scavenger ecology study.
“There is so little known about them, especially here in the inter-mountain west,” she said. “It also seemed like a perfect fit for our study on scavenger ecology.”
Initially, the researchers homed in on a turkey vulture roost in West Carlton Creek near Florence and another in the giant spruce trees that surround an old funeral home building just two blocks south of downtown Hamilton.
“Not all that many people in Hamilton know that it’s even there,” Stone said. “Turkey vultures normally arrive at their roost close to sunset and then leave a couple of hours after sunrise. A lot of what they do happens when people aren’t around.”
In Missoula, there’s a roost near the Coca-Cola plant.
A few weeks back Stone discovered the turkey vulture roost in Florence.
“I saw them sitting outside the school,” she said. “When I started talking with people from the school and neighbors, they told me they were there all the time.”
This was the second vulture that MPG Ranch researchers have captured and fitted with a transmitter. The first was caught in West Carlton Creek.
It didn’t stick around the Bitterroot for long.
“It flew from Florence to Frenchtown, where it spent a couple of nights,” Stone said. “And then it flew to St. Ignatius where it stayed a couple of days. It’s now headed north along the Clark Fork.”
At this point, Stone has no way of knowing if some the vultures call the Bitterroot home or if all are just migrating through. Every fall, they count 2,000 to 3,000 turkey vultures at the MPG Ranch during their annual raptor count.
They do know that some turkey vultures migrate as far south as Brazil to winter.
While vultures have been the focus of studies on the East Coast, Stone said not much is known about their nesting locations, population numbers or their range on this side of the country.
“We know that they need some security during nesting seasons, but otherwise they tolerate people pretty well,” she said. “We also know that as conditions change, their population respond. … As climate and habitat changes, we might see them react to that, too.”
People seem to be interested in learning more.
“I’ve been amazed at how people will stop and talk to us in the school parking lot or at Glens (restaurant in Florence) to tell us what they’ve seen,” she said. “As a scientist, I want to be connecting with people and hearing about they know as much as possible.”
“We are looking for additional roost sites in the Bitterroot Valley,” Stone said. “We are interested in both documenting the numbers and behavior at the sites, collecting pellets from the ground, and, if people are willing, setting up additional capture sites.”
Anyone with information to share can call Stone at 406-381-1115 or email at email@example.com.