Birds of a feather, disgusting to­gether: Vul­tures are win­ter­ing lo­cally

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DAR­RYL FEARS

Molly Pallavicini has se­ri­ously con­sid­ered sell­ing her house to get away from her newneigh­bors. “ They’re disgusting,” she said. They carry on in pub­lic. They hiss at each other. They use her drive­way as a toi­let.

“ They are big black and turkey vul­tures,” Pallavicini said, enough to darken the sky when she drives home from work about 5 p.m. to her house in Staunton, Va. “I’ve had as many as 50 of them at the house. When they take off and leave, it’s such a loud noise, like a wreck or some­thing.”

Staunton, pop­u­la­tion 24,000, is the lat­est win­ter des­ti­na­tion of fed­er­ally pro­tected vul­tures —

about 500, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture Wildlife Ser­vices, more than ever be­fore. Af­ter try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to scare them away for weeks with fire­works, the USDA re­cently turned to fire­power, killing at least two dozen eachMon­day and Tues­day night, and still the vul­tures haven’t re­treated.

Each year, this goes on with vul­tures and var­i­ous birds and other wildlife in cities across the nation. Large num­bers of vul­tures have also roosted in Lees­burg and Lynch­burg, Va., and re­cently in Columbia.

Euro­pean star­lings of­ten in­vade In­di­anapo­lis and Omaha; they also flock to dairy farms,

where they eat much of the food set out for cows and drop ex­cre­ment in the rest. Canada Geese foul ev­ery golf course and park in the District and nu­mer­ous states with their waste.

The USDA is the only agency au­tho­rized to kill vul­tures and other birds pro­tected by the Mi­gra­tory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. A felony if con­victed of killing a pro­tected bird, the penalty is up to $200,000 for an or­ga­ni­za­tion, $100,000 for an in­di­vid­ual and/or up to one year in prison.

Pub­lic works of­fi­cials in Staunton and res­i­dents like Pallavicini can look at vul­tures but can’t touch them. Vul­tures, of course, aren’t much to look at. Dressed ap­pro­pri­ately in black plumage, they serve an im­por­tant role as the undertakers of the nat­u­ral world, scarf­ing down car­rion.

Vul­tures are what they eat, Pallavicini said. They stink, and they’re mean. On New Year’s Eve, they fought on her lawn. The next morn­ing, “I walked out . . . and one was in my back yard, split open, bloody. I had to go out and get it somy dogs wouldn’t eat it.”

A USDA spokesman said vul­tures are the only birds that can’t be banded for track­ing be­cause their ex­cre­ment — which coats their legs — would quickly cor­rode the hard­ware. Their waste mat­ter is so strong that pine nee­dles have fallen off trees in Staunton where they roost overnight.

Staunton’s prob­lem started the way it al­ways does this time of year in many cities. Like other liv­ing things, vul­tures get cold in re­mote coun­try ar­eas. Staunton and other cities are at­trac­tive be­cause they’re slightly warmer.

Late in De­cem­ber, the birds swooped into the north­ern sec­tions of the city, in­clud­ing Bald­win Acres and Gibbs Hill.

At City Hall, phones at the pub­lic works depart­ment lit up. Di­rec­tor Thomas Sli­woski gave ev­ery caller the same spiel — ba­si­cally, there wasn’t much he could do. The birds usu­ally fly off when the weather warms, but of­fi­cials in Staunton didn’t want them to get com­fort­able.

“You come here af­ter 3:30 [p.m.], and you can see masses of black in the sky with them just cir­cling,” Sli­woski said. “For some rea­son, they like rub­bery stuff. They like pool cov­ers and wind­shield-wiper blades. Peo­ple are afraid to put out their cats and dogs.”

Home­owner Scott Koehn had a bright idea to chase away vul­tures. He stepped out­side his split-level home in north­ern Staunton with his son, An­drew, 9, and started fir­ing paint balls into their roost in pine trees.

A sin­gle vul­ture sailed into ac­tion, swoop­ing to­ward them. “It vom­ited on my son,” Koehn said. “It was like a half pound of ground beef on his shoul­der. It was so disgusting. We got it off him. Got his shirt off. And got him to stop scream­ing.”

Sli­woski had a bet­ter idea. He called Scott Bar­ras, state di­rec­tor for the USDA Wildlife Ser­vices pro­gram in Vir­ginia. The USDA seeks to re­solve an es­ti­mated 200,000 con­flicts yearly be­tween wildlife and man in the United States.

In 2009, the agency dis­persed more than 27 mil­lion wild an­i­mals from com­mu­ni­ties and farms and killed 4 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port on it­sWeb site. Black vul­tures and turkey vul­tures ac­counted for 121,000 of dis­persed an­i­mals and 4,000 kills. But Bar­ras’s hands were also tied. Al­though his agency is au­tho­rized to kill vul­tures, he can’t march his work­ers into neigh­bor­hoods with their guns blaz­ing. The USDA is try­ing to re­solve the prob­lem with­out vi­o­lat­ing the spirit of the mi­gra­tory bird act.

“You have to un­der­stand what the law is there to do,” said Kevin McGowan, who stud­ies birds at the Cor­nell Lab of Or­nithol­ogy. “ That was the law that stopped peo­ple from mar­ket-hunt­ing birds and driv­ing them to the brink of ex­tinc­tion.”

USDA took plod­ding steps to re­move the birds and their am­mo­nia-like smell.

Step 1 in late De­cem­ber: Scare the be­je­sus out of them with bot­tle rock­ets that shriek and pop. The vul­tures scat­tered for a few hours and flocked back.

Step 2: Hang dead vul­tures in ef­figy in their roost the way Vlad the Im­paler, the orig­i­nal Count Drac­ula, once did to his en­e­mies in Ro­ma­nia. That trou­bled the vul­tures but not as much as hang­ing out in the cold coun­try­side. Step 3: Blast them. Tues­day night, Pallavicini re­turned home from work about 5 p.m., when the birds start to gather around her house af­ter a day of search­ing for food, and she ran into a USDA worker.

“He’s car­ry­ing bags out,” she re­called. “He says, ‘I think I got three, maybe four.’ I said, ‘ They’re dead in there?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ ”


Flocks of mi­grat­ing vul­tures have roosted in neigh­bor­hood trees, vex­ing res­i­dents of Staunton, Va.

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