Smoking Out the Vultures

BY Jenny Marder  January 4, 2013 at 1:25 PM EST

A few hours before sundown, the vultures arrive by the dozens to roost in Jessica Paulin’s backyard. They swoop in, choose the perfect evergreen branch, and with one or two flaps of their massive wings, settle in for the night. By nightfall, more than 200 birds have occupied a cluster of trees that span her house and a neighboring home in a suburban neighborhood in the northeastern part of Leesburg,Va.

They are black vultures and turkey vultures, and their wingspan can stretch up to five feet across. During the day, they feed on dead carcasses, landfill waste and roadkill. They strip trees, break branches, and pick at the rubber seals of windshield wipers and at Paulin’s barbecue grill. And at night, they roost.

“They sit and they sit and they sit,” Paulin said, staring up at the birds from her backyard patio. She points to a wooden ledge underneath one of the trees. “That whole wooden area is white from their poo. And you can’t see now, but that tree is all white too.”

But the worst part, she says, is the smell — an acidic odor, like urine or ammonia.

“Vultures tend to destroy things,” said Dage Blixt, supervisory wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They pick at caulking on roofs, which can cause leaks and water damage, he said. Plus, the acidity from their feces is corrosive. It works its way into the soil and kills trees.

This is why the Department of Agriculture will next week embark on a mission to smoke the birds out. Starting Monday, Blixt and others will arrive with noisemakers, fireworks and lasers to chase the birds out of the neighborhood. They’ll fire shotguns with blanks and kill a few of them “in effigy,” said Leesburg Police Lt. Jeff Dube. They expect that hanging dead birds by their feet from the roosting trees will frighten the others away.

“The USDA will have a chase car,” Dube said. “After harassing them, they will follow them to see where they go, until [the birds] get the hint: You’re not welcome here.”

The hope is to reroute them to a nearby rural area, away from residential homes.

In his 13 years working in the area, Blixt has seen firsthand a steady rise in the numbers of wintering vultures. They migrate south from Pennsylvania and New York, usually arriving in November, in search of mature trees.

“We seem to be right at the line where they tend to stay for the winter,” he said. “As a result, we get quite a congregation for the wintertime.”

As the sun sets on Mayfair Drive, the cold air fills with small squawks and a rustle of wings.

Nona and Bob Hayward live across the street from Paulin. Three years ago, after loud noises and clapping sticks failed to deter the 50-some vultures roosting at night in their yard, they scrubbed bird droppings from the walls of their workshop and cut down nine of the white pines in their yard. When winter arrived the following year, the birds circled their house, looking for the trees, before settling down at the other side of Mayfair Drive.

Nona, who can see their new roost from her window, points to a deciduous tree across the street.

“That tree over there, that’s kind of their coffee shop,” she says. “But they like the leafy trees to sleep in.”

“When they’re sunbathing they’ll spread their wings, just like they’re airing themselves out,” she said. But,” she added quickly, “if they were still in our pines, I wouldn’t be so nice about them.”

QUICK BITES

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Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages

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NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

Explosive rise in English vomiting. Health officials confirm 1.1 million cases of norovirus winter vomiting in Great Britain. That’s 72 percent up from last year.

Jeremy Blackman, Tom Kennedy, Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.