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Dozens of Drowning Turkey Vultures Rescued After Falling From Sky Above Florida Keys

By Caitlin Berard,

(Photo by Dgwildlife via Getty Images)

Animal rescuers took to the sea last week to rescue dozens of waterlogged turkey vultures who fell from the sky off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Staff from the local Dolphin Research Center executed the unusual water rescue on Monday when a rare vulture stranding occurred in the water on the Gulf of Mexico side of Marathon. Workers were already in the water, conducting unrelated research, when they spotted a turkey vulture struggling to stay afloat near the shoreline.

Concerned for the stranded animal, DRC officials contacted the Marathon Wild Bird Center, who informed them that if one vulture was stranded at sea, there were likely more nearby. Looking around, the researchers were stunned to discover that the bird center was right.

Near the lone turkey vulture, dozens more waterlogged birds fought to stay above the surface. “Sure enough, they were all over the place,” bird center director Kelly Grinter told the Miami Herald.

With the lives of 60 turkey vultures on the line, the Dolphin Rescue Center team set to work retrieving them from the water. The DRC successfully collected 30 birds, while the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and local fishermen saved the rest.

Like most birds, turkey vultures are not strong swimmers. Once they’re in the water, they’re almost guaranteed to need help getting out again. This is because their feathers quickly become waterlogged, making it impossible to take flight.

“Turkey vultures don’t swim, so staff took them on board and contacted Marathon Wild Bird Center to evaluate the birds,” DRC spokeswoman Allie Proskovec said.

Turkey Vulture Strandings Are Exceedingly Rare in Florida

While it’s more typical to see a whale or dolphin stranding in the Florida Keys, turkey vulture strandings aren’t unheard of. “The reason isn’t clear, but the birds sometimes suffer blunt-force trauma from hitting the water, or simply are cold and waterlogged, without the ability to lift themselves out of the water,” Proskovec said. “These events may be caused by a strong down draft pushing them into water.”

That said, though the turkey vulture stranding wasn’t a novel occurrence, it isn’t anywhere near a normal one, either. According to Kelly Grinter, last week’s incident marked only the second vulture stranding in nearly 30 years. “It doesn’t happen very often,” she said.

Overall, the turkey vulture rescue effort was a success. Unfortunately, however, a few of the birds didn’t survive the near-drowning. Two died in the water and five died days later as a result of the incident. The other 53 received careful care and then happily went back to feasting on decaying flesh in the wild.

As migratory birds, turkey vultures don’t call the Florida Keys home all year. Still, they play a vital role in the ecosystem when they do stop by. Vultures are essential for the overall health of an ecosystem, as they remove pathogens from the environment.

In doing so, they “keep the ecosystem disease-free,” Proskokev said. “Their digestive systems contain a very strong acid that destroys many of the harmful substances found in dead animals.”

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