A woman in vulture conservation: Katie Fallon

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Katie Fallon is a remarkable non-fiction author. She has authored two environment and conservation related books, children’s environmentally educative books along with articles for countless publications and journals in the United States. She founded the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia with her husband who is the resident vet there and they live in West Virginia with their two daughters who also help at the center. She is a powerful, influential and inspiration educator and a woman in conservation.

 

1.You published Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird last year. Briefly tell us what it is about.

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My book, Vulture, tells the story of one of the world’s most widespread and abundant scavenging birds of prey: the turkey vulture. Turkey vultures can be found throughout most of North, Central, and South America in a variety of habitats—they’re a bird that unites people across the Americas. Where I live, in the state of West Virginia in the eastern United States, I can see turkey vultures all year. But despite being numerous and recognizable, most people don’t know much about turkey vultures, and they certainly don’t appreciate the important work these birds do to keep our environment free of animal carcasses and disease. Turkey vultures are my favorite bird, and I wanted to tell people more about them.

2.What was the motivation behind writing this book seeing as you work with many other animals and birds at the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia?

I love turkey vultures. I think they’re beautiful, and they’re very important to the health of an ecosystem. They are obligate scavengers (they do not kill live prey, but only eat dead animals). I think they are perfect animals in many ways—they don’t kill, they don’t waste anything, they don’t even make any noise. Their strong digestive systems can destroy and neutralize dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, botulism toxin, and cholera. They help reduce the spread of rabies by efficiently cleaning up carcasses that could attract mammalian scavengers. I thought that turkey vultures deserved more respect—more love!—so I wrote this book.

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The Turkey Vulture

3.What are the major threats to vultures and other raptors that you treat at the ACCA?

Vultures—and the other raptors we treat—are typically admitted for injuries caused by being hit by vehicles, intentionally shot by humans, or suffering from lead toxicity. Scavenging raptors can encounter lead bullet fragments when feeding on a carcass that has been shot; sometimes the bullet fragments are so small that the birds eat them without realizing it. Some raptors, such as bald eagles, are very sensitive to lead toxicity and die. Vultures are not quite as sensitive to lead, but it still can make them sick.

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Katie with a Turkey Vulture at the ACCA

 We also admit raptors that are caught (unintentionally) in leg-hold traps meant for mammals. Still others are found entangled in barbed-wire fencing, and some small hawks are injured when they collide with windows.

 Virtually all of the raptors that we treat at the ACCA have been injured because of human activity or because of their close proximity to humans. It is against the law in the United States to shoot or intentionally harm any raptor species, but unfortunately, it still happens. Last year we admitted a turkey vulture that had been shot twice—one in each wing. Sadly, we had to humanely euthanize the vulture.

4.How/What has been the response to your book?

So far it’s been great! I’ve been giving a lot of presentations about vultures at nature centers, for bird clubs, and at schools, and people have been overwhelmingly supportive.

5. In your opinion, what is the relevance of actions of individuals and small organisations in conservation today?

I think individuals and groups of like-minded people can make a huge difference. A relatively small organization, such as our Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, can make a difference by raising awareness about conservation in our communities, and among our friends and families. Even reaching just one person, or igniting a spark in one child, can change the future.

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Katie with a baby Turkey Vulture in hand and her daughters Cora and Laurel

We often think of “the wilderness” as a separate place, far away from our homes, but in reality, we can make relatively simple changes around our homes and in our communities that can have an impact on conservation. I think involving young children in conservation efforts can be very important. My children (ages 5 and 3) help pick up trash along the road where we live, they help fill up bird feeders outside our home, and we go on walks together to look for birds and other animals. My kids also help out at the ACCA; they help clean cages and enclosures, and they even help prepare food for the birds (my kids don’t mind picking up dead mice!) My younger daughter’s favorite bird is our non-releasable black vulture named Maverick; she always asks to help feed him.

6.Why do you think vulture conservation is a worthy and economic cause in the world today?

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Katie with a tagged baby Turkey Vulture chick

Vultures do a very important job, and they do it extremely well: they clean up animal carcasses that might otherwise contaminate the soil or water. Without vultures, dead animals could take longer to be disposed of. Mammalian scavengers (in the US, that could be raccoons, coyotes, dogs, cats, rats) take longer to remove carcasses, and they could spread rabies and other diseases. Vultures are an important component of a healthy ecosystem. Every animal in nature fills a role, a niche—every animal is a piece of a puzzle. If we keep losing animals, we will have an incomplete puzzle; the pieces will no longer fit together properly. I think conserving every species is important, but vultures are my favorites!

 

Follow Katie on her website http://www.katiefallon.com/

 

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