Vultures Take Over Suburbia
They vomit all over the place, urinate on themselves to cool off, and feed on the dead. Now they're disgusting and even frightening suburban homeowners. But vultures are amazing creatures that are a key part of the food chain, and they reveal a lot about wildlife's ability to adapt to us.
Vultures gather on communications towers, where their feces irritate workers. At lakeside neighborhoods in Florida and boat ramps in Virginia, large numbers tear apart boat cushions and strip windshield wipers from cars. And, unlike turkey vultures, they "take live prey on a regular basis," says Michael Avery, who runs a USDA wildlife research field station outside of Gainesville, Florida. "Their tight social organization might help them subdue and kill larger prey that turkey vultures couldn't." They are known to have killed and eaten striped skunks and opossums, hatchling leatherback sea turtles, and young night-herons, and ranchers complain that black vultures prey on newborn sheep and calves.
Black vultures feeding at cow-calf operations could key in on stillborn animals or scavenge birth sites. "We can't say it never happens," says Audubon's Greg Butcher, "but there are no studies that directly address how likely it is that a black vulture will kill and eat a perfectly healthy calf. But this is a very common complaint. It must happen, at least sporadically."
In populated areas APHIS phones are beginning to ring off the hook. Typically, reports Blixt, homeowners or municipal officials call the regional APHIS office seeking advice for how to deal with their newfound neighbors. "We first give technical assistance over the phone," he says. "Bang the trees, make some noise, work a spotlight. Get a few neighbors together and harass the birds for five or six nights." Most of the time, he says, that works. But if the birds won't move, the phone rings again.
"If we're asked to physically intervene, it's because there's a major problem. We get the tough cases," he says. "And it's not cheap. A project could cost $4,000." But these days more people are willing to pay. (The tab for the Leesburg harassment did come to precisely $4,000, which the town covered.)
On its face, Butcher figures, breaking up a roost can ease the tensions between growing human and wildlife populations. "Dispersing a roost is a bit like rolling the dice," he says. "They might move to a faraway place and we never hear from them again. Or they might move to a place where they cause even greater problems. But if we move them to a place that's not going to cause problems for humans, then no harm, no 'fowl.' "
Butcher does offer an important caveat: "Coexistence means that all parties continue to thrive, even if they must endure a little discomfort." APHIS reports that 1,827 black vultures were dispersed by agency personnel in 1996, with projects in Florida and Tennessee only. In 2005 that number had climbed to 23,660, with dispersal projects in 14 states and as far north as New Jersey. In that same period the number of black vultures actually killed by federal authorities (under permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) soared from 238 to 2,005.
"There will be those times when lethal methods are necessary," says Butcher. "But we should be much more willing to try a wide variety of nonlethal methods, and APHIS research is pretty good at coming up with them."
"If we don't solve this problem, people will take matters into their own hands and do something stupid, illegal, or biologically unsound," says Blixt. "Neighbors tell us about people shooting these birds with pellet guns. That does no good. We usually shoot one to four birds a night [as part of the hazing] on a harassment project. It's still protection in the long run."
Others take a more cautionary note. "We don't want to head in the direction we were with raptor control in the early 1900s, when hawks were shot by the thousands," says Watts of William & Mary. "There are times when lethal control may be justified, but as a last option. There was an effort a few years ago for a permit to take 2,000 vultures a year statewide in Virginia. That's extreme. We have to think carefully about how to resolve these issues."
If development trends of the past century continue, more and more humans will have the opportunity to decide for themselves if black vultures are beauties or beasts. The real problem, both sides agree, is that the balance between humans and wildlife has been thrown out of whack.
In the pale light of a commuter's morning, Virginia State Route 7 is a river of red brake lights, wending east from Leesburg toward the District of Columbia. Hundreds upon hundreds of new townhouses, condominiums, single-family homes, shopping centers, and office suites dominate the landscape. Beside the blacktop, Route 7's shoulders are burdened with the offal of such sprawl: The medians are flecked with fast-food bags, mattresses, and the red smudges of road-killed deer whose half-scavenged ribs rise from the weedy grass like storm-shattered masts.
This is the perfect place to contemplate the causes of vultures' success. "The more you break up the habitat," says Lowney, "the happier these birds are." More roads equal more roadkill, more landfills, more McDonald's dumpsters. There's certainly more to be found in Loudoun County, the home of Leesburg. Since 1990 the county population has ballooned from 86,000 residents to 278,000.