"I like to call them vulture hotels," said Betty O'Leary, a rehabilitator at the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte.
Nine turkey vultures have been brought in for treatment this year compared with six in all of last year, an indicator of a population increase.
O'Leary sees vultures up close and has learned a lot about their personalities. They may not look too smart, but looks are deceiving, she said.
"I would say that compared to other raptors they tend to be more intelligent," O'Leary said.
Vultures learn not to be afraid of humans, she said. One in captivity at the raptor center loved to untie staff members' shoestrings. They tried to trick the vulture by wearing velcro shoes, but the vulture quickly learned to undo those, too, O'Leary said. Another vulture used to pick up sticks in its claw and drop them over and over again to show agitation.
Vultures, at least in captivity, have preferences for the type of dead animals they eat.
"They don't really care for opossums too much," O'Leary said. "Opossums are too greasy. Rats are good. They like rats."
But in the wild, they aren't so choosy and will eat opossums.
There are stories of vultures developing attachments to humans. In one case, a vulture followed a boy to his bus every day. Once the bus was gone, the vulture flew away in its hunt for food. When the bus returned, the vulture would be there and follow the boy home.
Vultures have one of the best senses of smell among all birds. Gas companies have used them to find leaks. A strong-smelling gas is pumped through the pipes, drawing a flock of vultures over the leak. Gas company crews just look for the soaring vultures.
A sight seen more often lately.
(c) 2001 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA.