When your neighbor is a vulture
EUREKA SPRINGS -- Soaring majestically above us, riding warm updrafts across the entire sky without a single wingflap while looking for something dead to eat, vultures evoke emotions as diametrically opposite as politicians in an election year.
To some, vultures are grand and graceful creatures that keep our land free of blighted carrion. To others the very word means reprehensible opportunists who prey on the vulnerabilities of others. Also, it must be said that vultures urinate on themselves and vomit in public, but the Turkey Vulture Society can explain all this.
There are 22 species of vultures in the world, but only three in the United States. One of those is the California Condor, which was nearly extinct in the 1980s and is still only tentatively rebounding -- there are probably only 100 birds in the wild and 100 in captivity.
The two vulture species we see in
northern Arkansas are either turkey vultures or black vultures. They are larger than all other birds except eagles.
Turkey vultures live throughout the United States, but black vultures live predominantly from the southeastern states into Texas and Mexico, then farther south. Black vultures are slowly, but definitely, expanding territory toward the Midwest and New England.
Telling them apart
Turkey vultures are slightly larger with the turkey-type red head. Also their tails are usually longer and not so spread out in flight, and their wings have a silvery display when the light is right. Turkey vultures fly with their wings in a shallow "V" shape, and black vultures keep their wings flatter.
Black vultures are a bit smaller and have a dark to gray head, definitely not red, and their wings are more uniformly dark until the lighter "fingers" at the tips of the wings. Black vulture tails are shorter and more fan-shaped. They also flap their wings more often than turkey vultures, which are impressive in how they ride the warm updrafts. Turkey vultures would rather perch than flap their wings.
Black vultures are gregarious and turkey vultures more solitary. Black vultures might gather in large enough numbers around a carcass to crowd out or chase away a turkey vulture.
Fans of bird songs will be disappointed in vultures because they do not have a voice box, thereby vocally challenged. They hiss and grunt. The hiss means they feel threatened. Young vultures grunt when hungry and adults grunt when courting, and you don't want to be involved in either of those episodes.
The Turkey Vulture Society (TVS) reports that turkey vultures are reportedly among a select few North American birds with an extra-keen olfactory sense. They can smell dead meat a mile away.
Black vultures depend on razor-sharp eyesight to spot their next meal. Both species might feed at refuse collection areas. Black vultures fly higher than turkey vultures and might stalk them from above and follow them to a meal. Also, vulture feet are too weak to carry food to the roost to eat, so it's dining out for them. In addition, they are clumsy pedestrians, and one source said they "hop like comical chickens."
Although black vultures have been known to dine on over-ripe pumpkins, vultures usually eat carrion or other food waste. That's the good news. They take care of the disposing of dead animals for the rest of us, thus removing breeding sites for diseases and obnoxious odors.
Because they instinctively have no way of knowing when they will eat again, vultures will gorge themselves on a carcass. If disturbed, they might need to vomit in order to jettison some cargo so they can take off.
Since vultures often go head-first into a carcass, they have developed featherless heads to reduce the collecting of flesh and juices on their heads. So, the featherless head is an attempt at hygiene. However, the birds step on their prey during feeding and bacteria might collect on their legs, so the birds will urinate on themselves because chemicals in their urine will kill the bacteria.
According to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service (UACES), black vultures can be more aggressive than turkey vultures. Not only might they cause property damage to rooftops, lawn chairs and boat cushions, they have been seen attacking newborn lambs and pigs. Cattle ranchers watch them closely around newborn calves.
Even though they can cause damage, UACES says they are doing what comes naturally to cope with the world around them. Most important, they are the waste managers of the bird world.
As for the roost, both species are gregarious and share communal roosts. They feed independently during the day and they nest in a hollow scratched out in the bare earth in a protected area such as a cave or cliffside.
However, they roost and hang out in tall dead trees or rooftops and sometimes the two species roost together. The droppings of black vultures can present problems when significant numbers of the birds congregate because their guano can harm or kill trees.
Whit Brittain of Eureka Springs has watched them gather in late afternoons near his home on Linwood Avenue for years. He said they don't eat here, they just sleep and defecate but in such large numbers that their accumulated feces interferes with normal soil chemistry and kills trees in backyards on his street and in the hollow near Fuller Drive.
According to TVS, the turkey vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and it is illegal to kill this species in the United States. Same is true for the black vulture. Brittain said when representatives of the Wildlife Management Division of the Department of Agriculture heard about the situation in Eureka Springs several years ago, they came here to see for themselves.
Their boots on the ground said that they could indeed help, but they would need to be invited by the city council. That was several years ago and the birds are still here.
The typical aversion methods used are exploding fireworks or flares near the roosts, or using sonic cannons to chase the birds away. These will work, according to Brittain, only if they are used early and often in autumn when the birds are gathering.
Continue until the birds get the message, and they move on to quieter roosts. Otherwise, they will just fly away for awhile and return when the pandemonium subsides.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, sonic cannons direct a beam of painful, ear-blasting noise. They were developed as a non-lethal weapon and have been used by cruise ships to deter pirates off the Somali coast.
Marsha Havens also lives in the neighborhood near the gathering place for the vultures. She said she does not like the idea of sonic cannons, and once garnered signatures on a petition against their use. Her logic is that if the noise chases away the largest birds such as vultures, what happens to the woodpeckers, titmice, cardinals, blue jays and other innocent bystanders, not to mention the nerves, eardrums and peace of mind of the humans nearby? She said she is honored the vultures chose her neighborhood for their roosts, although she regrets the tumult that surrounds them.
Makanda, Ill., is situated near bluffs perfect for migrating vultures, and they hold a Vulture Fest every autumn featuring music, a beauty contest, a craft fair and vulture-themed educational presentations.
The East Coast Vulture Festival will again be in Wenonah, New Jersey, in early March. The 18th Kern River Valley Autumn Nature and Vulture Festival will be held in late September near Bakersfield, Calif., and one of the activities will be a count of the vultures and other birds along the river.
Opinion is divided on vultures. Brittain said he has nothing against them and understands they perform a vital function. He just wants them to move out of the neighborhood. "How can we be Arbor City USA and let the vultures kill these trees right and left?" he asked. However, TVS has a long list of ways in which vultures can be good neighbors.
In the politics surrounding vultures, and the vultures surrounding politics, there are different ways of seeing the world.