German police vulture scheme fails to take off

Vulture with German handler at Walsrode, 26 Apr 10
Image caption The vultures' habits had seemed like a perfect fit for the job of detective

Police in Lower Saxony, Germany, who decided to teach a vulture to sniff out corpses of missing people, have hit difficulties two months into training.

Reasoning that it could fly over miles of wasteland, then descend where it found a missing person, they had wanted to fit it with a transmitter.

But it transpires that Sherlock, as the bird is known, is not very interested.

On top of that, it is shy, confuses human with animal remains and actually prefers to walk, Spiegel magazine says.

Sherlock has been in training in the Walsrode bird park on Lueneburg Heath near Hanover, along with two vulture side-kicks also named after famous fictional detectives, Columbo and Miss Marple.

Shy bird

It had seemed such a great idea. What if the police had sniffer dogs that could fly? Dogs do not have wings, they realised, but birds do.

But according to Spiegel: "Sherlock's success has been limited.

"While he can locate a stinking burial shroud, which the police gave the bird park to use for training purposes and which is clearly marked with a yellow plastic cup, Sherlock doesn't approach the shroud by air.

"He prefers to travel by foot."

Furthermore, the bird is yet to perform outside the familiar confines of the zoo.

"The bird is naturally anxious, and he would hide in the woods or bolt," according to his trainer.

The vulture also finds it hard to distinguish between dead people and dead animals, which is a problem in the vast heathland of that part of Germany.


When the idea was unveiled two months ago, there was much fuss in the media.

The police explained they had got the idea from a documentary on birds - reportedly a BBC wildlife documentary.

"It was a colleague of mine who got the idea from watching a nature programme," policeman Rainer Herrmann told the media proudly.

"If it works, time could be saved when looking for dead bodies because the birds can cover a much vaster area than sniffer dogs or humans."

Apparently, birds generally rely mostly on sight to locate food but vultures like Sherlock have a keen sense of smell.

The police decided on turkey vultures, which are indigenous to the Americas but which also live in the zoos of Europe.

They are not pretty with their bright bald heads but they do have an ability to locate carrion if they want to.

Sherlock does not - or not if it involves too much effort.

At the time the scheme was launched, the idea was that Holmes would be the senior detective teaching Miss Marple and Columbo.

"But the young ones can't do anything besides fight with each other," Spiegel quoted a trainer as saying.

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