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VMNH officials: Vultures beneficial
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A group of different types of vultures are seen in a wooded area near the interesection of Mulberry Road and Corn Tassel Trail in Martinsville. Although they have a less than stellar reputation, vultures are beneficial to the environment according to Jim Beard and Joe Keiper of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. (Buletin file photo)

Monday, March 10, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The black vulture won’t win a beauty contest, but it performs a valuable service, according to Jim Beard and Joe Keiper of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH).

Beard is the curator of earth sciences and honorary curator of birds at VMNH, and Keiper is the executive director of the museum.

Area residents have voiced concerns recently about black vultures on their properties, and some have made suggestions on how to scare the large birds away.

Beard and Keiper explained the importance of vultures, and also offered a few suggestions for warding them away from homes.

There are three species of vultures in the U.S., Beard said: the red-headed turkey vulture; the smaller, black-headed black vulture; and the rare, giant California Condor. There are fewer than 500 California Condor specimens remaining in the wild and in captivity.

Only the black vulture and turkey vulture are found in Virginia, Beard said.

“Black vultures have a reputation for being more aggressive,” he said. “If you get a mixed vulture flock, the black vultures will tend to drive off the turkey vultures. Which is kind of interesting, because they’re smaller than turkey vultures, but they just seem to be more aggressive.”

However, Beard said, that aggression is limited to other vultures.

“They aren’t going to go after people’s pets or anything like that,” he said.

Vultures prefer to eat dead animals, or “carrion,” and they are well-equipped to do so, he said.

“Their stomach acid is strong enough to peel the paint off of a car, so they can eat anything,” Beard said. “If they swallow it, it gets dissolved in their stomach acid and it just kills all of the bacteria. This is an adaptation that they have to be able to eat really rotten food. Their digestive system basically has evolved to enable them to do that.”

Although they have a reputation for being dirty and carrying disease, Beard compared the birds to sanitary engineers: their role in nature is to clean up and prevent disease.

“By cleaning up these carcasses rather than letting them accumulate,” Keiper said, “it slows the spread of wildlife diseases like botulism and anthrax, which can jump to humans in some cases. That’s kind of an unseen benefit to these things.”

If there were no vultures in the world, Beard said, “we’d have a whole lot of stinking dead critters lying around in the woods and on the sides of the roads, and the smell would probably be quite alarming.”

Although the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) dispatches crews to clean up roadkill, if there were no vultures, their work would increase exponentially, and that cost would be passed on to the taxpayer, Keiper said.

“If (VDOT crews) had to do the whole job themselves,” he said, “there would be a huge economic cost, everything from running the equipment to paying the salaries. It’s what we call an ‘ecosystem service.’ The ecosystem provides an economic benefit just by letting nature run its course.”

The reason that so many people dislike vultures, Beard said, largely boils down to an image problem.

“I think it’s a reputation thing and it’s a cuteness thing,” Beard said. “They’re highly un-cute, and they eat dead things.”

“If you’re listing their endearing qualities versus their unendearing qualities, I think the fact that they eat carrion is probably on the ‘unendearing’ side,” he said, laughing. However, he pointed out, carrion also is an important food source for the bald eagle, America’s national symbol.

Additionally, Beard said, a flock of vultures will tend to find an old, usually dead tree and roost there, creating an ominous sight if the tree is on someone’s property. However, he said, residents don’t have to worry about noise; the birds mostly are silent.

Keiper said the lack of understanding of the service that vultures provide likely adds to people’s distaste for the birds.

“It’s easy to not understand something and dislike it,” he said.

There are several reasons that vultures have become such a common sight, Keiper said. One is that Virginia’s enormous population of white-tailed deer provides them with a steady food source, as a portion of the deer population constantly is dying off.

Another reason, Keiper said, is the “heat island effect.” Roads and rooftops in urban areas tend to collect heat, which rises into the air in a thermal updraft. Vultures love these updrafts, because they allow the birds to rise into the air without expending as much energy flapping their wings.

If area residents are truly bothered by vultures on their property, scaring them away is the only option, as both black vultures and turkey vultures are federally protected species, Beard said. It is illegal to kill them, trap them, poison them or destroy their nests.

One method of warding them away, Beard suggested, would be to go to a hardware store and purchase a plastic model of a Great Horned Owl and affix it in an area where vultures have been spotted.

“If you put those on your roofline,” he said, “those are pretty effective at scaring most other birds away.”

Keiper suggested stringing up strips of tinfoil or reflective metallic tape in areas where vultures roost. When the wind blows the strips, sunlight reflects off of them and frightens the vultures.

Contrary to popular belief, loud noises — such as party poppers or 12-gauge shotgun blanks — won’t have much of an effect on the vultures. It will scare the birds away initially, but once the noise stops, the vultures will return.

“That’s the problem with that kind of solution,” Beard said. “It scares them off, but unless you’ve got something that fires off 12-gauge blanks every half-hour all night long,” the vultures will return.

“Then the neighbors are going to say, ‘Vultures, or a large shotgun blast every half-hour between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.?’” Beard joked. “There’s a definite downside.”

However, Beard said, the best solution might be to take pity on those faces only a mother could love and try to appreciate the important role that vultures play in nature.

“If they’re in a tree and they’re in the back corner of your property,” he said, “you should try to enjoy having them there. Just think of them as a cool thing that you get to see.”

 

 
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