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Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Flight Patterns of Vultures


Flight Patterns of Vultures and What They Mean to Aircraft

photo of Mike Avery and black vulture. By Univ. of FloridaBecause of their large size, limited ability to make evasive flight maneuvers, and tendency to fly in groups, black vultures and turkey vultures can cause serious damage to aircraft. According to the United States Air Force bird strike database, black vultures and turkey vultures rank number 3 and number 4 respectively, in total cost of bird strikes to the military. Combined, turkey vultures and black vultures have been responsible for more civil aircraft strikes involving human injury than any other bird species except Canada geese.

To learn more about these unique birds, NWRC researchers equipped black and turkey vultures with solar-powered global positioning system (GPS) satellite transmitters to document their flight patterns (time of day, altitudes) during a 2-year study at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina. Results revealed that greater than 60 percent of vulture flight activity occurred from 4 to 9 hours after sunrise at altitudes below 656 ft /200 m. These data can be used to aid development of directed hazing programs and options for military flight training schedules to reduce the risk of vulture-aircraft collisions.

“Although it's not possible to eliminate risk entirely, the information gathered from our tagged vultures can help to reduce bird-aircraft collisions,” notes NWRC's Dr. Michael Avery. “By knowing the likelihood of encountering vultures, pilots have the option to avoid those times and altitudes when vultures are apt to be in the area.”
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