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Vulture Clash

Potomac region provides banquet of roadkill for turkey vultures and black vultures.

Gregory Talcott plans to replace the cedar shingling on the roof of his home in River Falls within two months. His timing is fortunate. One morning last month, Talcott saw more than 20 turkey vultures roosting on his roof, tearing shingles off with their beaks and even picking at the metal flashing surrounding Talcott’s chimney.

“They seem to find my roof on cold mornings when it’s sunny,” Talcott said. “I don’t mind them in the neighborhood. They’re very attractive while in flight. … They’re just not attractive [up close].”

These days, there are more and more local opportunities to view vultures up close. Both black vultures and turkey vultures are a common sight in Potomac and other places around the region. With a five-foot wingspan, they can be spotted soaring above the C&O Canal, roosting in the woods near residential neighborhoods, or congregating near a deer carcass on River Road or MacArthur Boulevard.

Like deer or raccoons, vultures seem to thrive in the onset of suburban sprawl; like killer bees, their range seems to steadily creep northward. When dozens of the giant birds silently eye nearby roadkill, a person could be forgiven for thinking of creepy Alfred Hitchcock scenarios.

“I don’t blame them. If I didn’t rehab them, I’d be frightened also,” said Matty Libre, who has been rescuing and rehabilitating black and turkey vultures for nearly 20 years. Libre describes herself as an advocate of “underdog” animals — those like skunks, possums, pigeons and seagulls that many humans despise. Both of the region’s species of vultures seem to be shooting toward the top of the list of animals that people fear and detest.

IS THERE REASON to be frightened by a large brood of vultures? Annoyed, maybe, but not frightened. Contrary to any urban myths, neither the black vulture nor the turkey vulture will attack pets or children.

“People are willing to believe the most preposterous things,” said Leslie Sturges, a naturalist at Locust Grove Nature Center in Cabin John Regional Park. “They’re not going to turn to small children as their alternative food source.”

“They’ll sit in that tree all day long and poop all over everything, but they’re not going to pick up a small child,” Libre said. In nearly 20 years of vulture observation and rehab, Libre has known of just one incident where vultures ever went after a live animal. It was a newborn goat still wet from birth.

Vultures’ long wings make them appear heavier than they are (typically 4-5 pounds, half the weight of an average cat). Their legs are not strong enough to carry prey like a small pet or child. Their beaks, too, are not especially strong, which is why they prefer their prey at least two days dead.

“They don’t have a ripping beak. … They’re not a true raptor,” Sturges said. They are in the same order as storks and pelicans.

When it comes to the vultures on his property, Talcott tries to think about the larger picture, and health concerns that vultures alleviate. “They do the ecology good,” he said.

True, said Libre. Vultures’ stomach acids can halt diseases that animal carcasses could spread. This is “absolutely phenomenal” for an environment, Libre said. “I can’t imagine how many diseases we would have without them.”

None of this means it’s desirable to have a huge flock of them. Even Libre, who is happy to have a few at a time near her home, doesn’t like having a large flock of vultures roosting on her property. It’s happened — she had 413 of them roosting in trees on her property several years ago.

Vulture excrement is the real deal. Libre thinks it should be used to mark highway lanes; it’s that resilient. Given vultures’ diet of rotting carrion, the droppings have an exceptionally foul odor, as does their “crop” — partially digested food the vultures will vomit as an effective defense mechanism. “They’re very playful, very mischievous,” Libre said. She too has seen black vultures pull shingles off a roof, and they tore the rubber off Libre’s screen door.

ARE HOMEOWNERS STUCK with giant flocks of vultures on their property? Libre says no, and it need not be expensive. When a flock of 413 black vultures began roosting on Libre’s property, she and her husband bought a pair of $27 aluminum baseball bats, waited for nightfall, then went Barry Bonds on a tree in their yard.

The noise and vibration from wailing on the trees worked. Libre could see hundreds of vulture silhouettes take flight from nearby trees into the night sky. They didn’t just hop to another nearby tree, either — they kept going until they were out of sight. Smaller numbers of them returned in the following days. Libre just repeated the baseball bat process, sometimes during daylight, and the giant flocks never returned. “They’ll find somewhere else,” Libre said. “If I can get rid of 413, people can get rid of 20.”

In Potomac, Talcott just used his voice. “All I have to do is walk out of the house and voice my displeasure, and they take off, and they won’t be back for a while,” Talcott said.

Shooting the vultures isn’t a legal option. “They are protected because [under law] they are in a class with the raptors,” Sturges said.

TO SOME EXTENT, people are probably going to have to get used to vultures as their neighbors. Any time a driver hits an animal while driving, the roadkill creates an appealing environment for vultures — turkey vultures locate the carcasses by smell, while groups of the more sociable black vultures join the party later, and often crowd out the turkey vulture. There is no shortage of roadkill in the Potomac area.

As Talcott noted, vultures are graceful and appealing to view when they’re in flight. Sturges said that along the Potomac River, a vulture may be in good company. If you see one, she said, “Get your binoculars out, because a lot of the time there will be bald eagles [nearby].”

Could there ever be any love for huge, scary-looking birds that pepper their roosting area with excrement and vomit carrion? Not everybody shuns gross-out antics, Sturges pointed out — the totem animal for 9-year-old boys may have arrived.