Virginia, it seems, is for vultures

RADFORD, VA. — RADFORD, Va. -- The day the vultures arrived here was a moment made for Hitchcock.

No one can say why they came. No one really saw them arrive. They were just there one morning last November, sitting in pine trees near the center of town. Hundreds of them. Black, beady-eyed and slightly menacing. Smelly, too. Road-kill smelly.


"It would take your breath away," said Thomas K. Adams, a local farmer whose girlfriend lived across the street from the vulture roost. "A barnyard smelled clean by comparison. They smelled like, well, dead animals."

Every day for five months, city officials battled to uproot the roost, exploding fireworks, spraying the vultures with water and finally chopping down trees. Nothing seemed to work. And then, as suddenly and weirdly as they had arrived, the vultures left, scattering one March morning like huge flocks of steroid-fed starlings.


But they did not go far. Many of them are now in woods nearby, nesting and lurking, and local officials expect them to try to retake the town in the fall. If they do return, like Capistrano swallows, the police intend to be ready with something more potent than a song: traps, and maybe shotguns.

"We've got to do something, because they'll be back," said David R. Fields, a former Marine who is the animal control officer for Radford, an Appalachian city of 17,000 in the New River Valley, near Roanoke.

As development spills into rural areas across southern Virginia, vultures -- aggressive, ugly, unappreciated -- have joined white-tailed deer, coyotes, raccoons and skunks on the list of animals unwelcome in the suburbs.

Many ornithologists say Virginia has the second-largest vulture population east of the Mississippi, after Florida. Thanks largely to federal protection, the number is growing, though estimates are in dispute. Federal officials have put the number as high as 100,000. Conservationists place it lower.

As vultures have multiplied, they have also spread into suburbs and even cities. Vultures, it turns out, like being near people, with all their road kill, livestock and landfills. "It is one of the side products of urbanization, just like storm runoff and air-quality degradation," said Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. Several Virginia communities have roosts with 1,000 birds or more. Radford's is among the largest.

More vultures mean more complaints. In 1990, the Department of Agriculture's office of wildlife services in Virginia received only two complaints of property damage by vultures. By 2001, the number had ballooned to 174, propelling vultures to third on the destructive-animal list, behind beavers and Canada geese.

The complaints have ranged from the grisly to the bizarre. Vultures are known to swoop down on newborn calves and lambs, peck their eyes out and even kill their mothers. From 1997 to 2001, vultures killed or wounded 392 farm animals, costing farmers $133,305, the wildlife services office reported last fall. Black vultures are considered the main culprits, with less aggressive turkey vultures a milder nuisance.

The buzzards have also attacked property, officials say, tearing off roof shingles, tractor seats and windshield wipers. Their droppings on transmission towers have caused power failures. For reasons that ornithologists have not figured out, they seem attracted to plastic and rubber items, like window gaskets and sheathing on power lines.


At a boat landing south of Richmond, complaints about vulture damage to boats and cars became so common that the federal government killed nearly 400 birds there last year. But local officials say more than 200 birds have returned this summer.

Then there is the psychic damage. Martin Lowney, the director of federal wildlife services in Virginia, said a family in southwestern Virginia complained that vultures were perched on their father's gravestone every time they visited the cemetery. A woman reported that when she walked into a hospital room to receive counseling about cancer, two buzzards alighted on the window ledge outside.

"She lost it," Lowney said in an interview.

Citing such anecdotes, and concerns about the birds as nuisances and disease carriers, the Department of Agriculture asked the U.S. and Wildlife Service last fall for permission to kill as many as 4,000 black and turkey vultures in Virginia. The request has been reduced to 1,300; the application is pending.

The birds are protected under a 1918 law that restricts the killing of birds that migrate across national borders. Vultures once migrated between the United States and Latin America, though most of them in Virginia no longer travel more than a few hundred miles, experts said.

Conservationists and ornithologists have accused the Agriculture Department of exaggerating vulture damage. The wildlife service has been steadily killing more vultures -- 562 last year, from zero in 1997 -- and critics contend that killing more than 1,000 birds in one year could decimate the birds in the state. They have demanded the government conduct a detailed census before allowing more to be killed.


"They are consistently trying to scare people by telling them vultures can be vectors for human disease," said Gerald W. Winegrad, vice president for policy at the American Bird Conservancy, a national group. "In fact, vultures are demonstrated in studies to reduce disease transmission. They are nature's garbage men."

The Agriculture Department, however, says that vulture vomit and droppings may contain pathogens. James D. Fraser, a professor of wildlife science at Virginia Tech, a few miles from Radford, said that vultures breed relatively late in life, and that killing large numbers of adults could devastate the overall population.

He recommends dispersing vultures by curtailing their food supply, through better disposal of dead livestock, game and pets.

"Let's try to manage these things by finding out what is providing their food," he said. "It's not all road-kill possum."

Lowney said the government might not need to kill 1,300 vultures. But killing even that many would not significantly reduce their numbers, he said.

Farmers in southwestern Virginia have little patience for vulture sympathizers. They say they have been battling black buzzards at the Radford Army Arsenal for decades. The arsenal's roost was once thought to be among the largest in the East, with more than 1,300 birds. But many have been dispersing into the surrounding region.


Chuck Shorter, 53, whose farm is over a ridge from the arsenal, said he had lost an average of three calves or lambs to vultures every spring for decades. "My field is like the local Hardee's to them," Shorter said. "They stop here for breakfast."

Jim McDonald, 73, whose family has raised livestock in the New River Valley since 1763, said the vultures had become so brazen that he once had to use a stick to beat a dozen of them off a newborn calf.

"People in Washington think we're terrible for wanting to kill vultures, but they haven't seen a baby calf with its eyes pulled out," McDonald said.

In Radford, about 5 miles from the arsenal, officials have applied for a permit to kill vultures and hang their bodies where they roost, a practice that scares off the birds, experts say. But if that approach fails, the city may ask federal officials to take more extreme measures.

Conservationists complain about an absence of public outrage about the killing of vultures, and they point to aesthetics as a reason. After all, the stoop-shouldered birds smell like ammonia, and vomit when threatened. Their feathers are puffy and unkempt. Noble-looking when carving lazy circles in the sky, they hop ridiculously on the ground.

To the ancient Egyptians, vultures were emblematic of motherhood, and their images were carved into tombs to watch over the souls of the dead.


But to Americans, they are buzzards, bottom feeders and flying rats that carry disease and eat disgusting things -- never mind that they perform a vital ecological service.

"They're an easier target," Winegrad said. "If these were cardinals being killed, people would be going bonkers."