Virginia town tries to make unwanted vultures move away

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Birds noisy, uninvited, obnoxious.
Staunton to try to scare away vulture roosts

BY CALVIN R. TRICE, Richmond Times Dispatch

Dec 02, 2001


STAUNTON - For several years, as the autumnal dusk begins to darken this historic city, vultures have swirled overhead.
The city that markets its antique vistas for tourism plays host to hundreds of unwanted guests with broad wingspans, moving in flocks from one wooded neighborhood to another.

This year, some 450 turkey and black vultures have congregated on tree branches, defecating voluminously and vomiting the day's meals of rotting animal flesh. Their purges stain rooftops, cars and swing sets and foul the air.

Starting tomorrow, the city will try to scare these annual visitors away.

Assistant City Manager Jim Halasz appreciates the birds for their role in clearing animal carcasses, but not when they congregate in residential neighborhoods.

"They're a useful bird, but when they're in your back yard, it's a real detriment to you enjoying your property," Halasz said.

Staunton has contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division to disperse the roosts, groups of vultures that gather in the winter for cooperative hunting.

Black vultures weigh about 4 pounds with a five-foot wingspan. They prey on slow-moving game. The slightly larger turkey vultures weigh about 5 pounds with six-foot wingspans. They are scavengers that feed only on dead animals.

The buzzards migrate from the cooler West Virginia highlands to Staunton. They are attracted by the tall cedar and pine trees in the city's northern neighborhoods, said Tom Sliwoski, the city's director of public works.

"They roost here at night and go back to the highlands during the day," Sliwoski said. "We're trying to deter them from making a home here for the winter."

Virginia is third in the nation for buzzard population, behind Texas and Florida, said Martin Lowney, the state director of Wildlife Services. Usually concentrated in Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest and Southside, they pose a menace when they roost in residential neighborhoods, Lowney said.

"Part of the problem is just the symbolism of having 200 vultures in your back yard and flying over your house," said Lowney, a certified wildlife biologist.

The birds' droppings aren't a health risk. However, the odors are a nuisance, and the stains can cause a good deal of property damage, Lowney said.

"They're pretty big birds and produce a lot of feces," he said. "When they get scared while they're fighting with each other, they throw up. That just adds to the odor."

Starting each day at sunset, Wildlife Services will try dispersing the roosts with pyrotechnic noises that resemble M-80 firecrackers and bottle rockets. Workers will also kill a select number of the birds, which are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Act.

Across the state, BB guns, starter pistols, air cannons and other forms of harassment have had mixed success - sometimes scaring the roosts away, other times merely moving the buzzards from one tree to another. Even roosts that are frightened away for one season often return the next fall.

The last harassment program deployed in Staunton two years ago didn't work, Halasz said.

An unusual method federal officials will employ this year is hanging dead vultures by their feet in effigy, Sliwoski said.

According to Lowney, a recent study showed that buzzards are one of the few birds that can't stand the sight of their own dead.

"By using the dead vultures as a repellant, we can more easily disperse a vulture roost because they don't want to sit in trees with their dead comrades," he said. Workers need permission from landowners to hang the birds on private property, he added.

Staunton residents have been cooperative in the past, Sliwoski said. On Friday, Staunton public works notified residents about the anti-buzzard project, which is slated to last about a week at a cost of about $5,000, he said.

The city will maintain an increased presence in affected neighborhoods to assure residents that the noise and firearms are being used against a common nuisance, Sliwoski said.

"People might be a little taken aback when they see a person walking around their neighborhood with a rifle," Sliwoski said. "There'll be a cop to act as a liaison and answer calls quickly."

Contact Calvin R. Trice at (540) 574-9977 or ctrice@timesdispatch.com
 

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