A rash of deaths of turkey vultures in the Lower Keys the past month has wildlife officials pleading with the public to not put anything outside that could lead to killing them.
Rat poison appears to be the culprit in the deaths, which reached 12 as of Thursday, said Maya Totman, founder of Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue on Big Pine Key. Les Pulley of Big Pine, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service zone officer for South Florida, agreed.
"I couldn't find anything that it was intentional," Pulley said. But "from what I understand, it makes them thirsty. Then they try to find water."
"Rats that have eaten the poison might hemorrhage and bleed to death," Totman said. "They can stagger around dazed for days, making them easy prey for predators."
The dead birds have been found in Big Pine Key's Palm Villa subdivision and in the area of Wilder Road, Totman said.
Vultures are scavengers and eat almost anything that's dead or near dead. Rodents are a favorite. So when the vultures --- or any other animals -- ingest poisoned rats, they are essentially ingesting the poison itself.
The poison contains anti-coagulants and once in an animal's system, they prevent blood from clotting. Obvious signs seen in birds at Totman's rescue center, she said, are bleeding from the eyes and nose, lethargy and anemia.
"We just want to make people aware that poisoning the rats could kill other animals," Pulley said. "We just want people to be mindful of the poison."
Turkey vultures have a high sense of smell, allowing them to find prey in densely forested areas like Big Pine. Adults turkey vultures' wingspans are about 66 to 70 inches and their bodies are about 25 to 30 inches long.