Now we know what it takes to get turkey vultures to quit roosting in the neighborhood — a dead vulture at a cost of about $500.
This year, two towns in New Jersey were so afflicted with the big black birds that they called in federal help.
People in a neighborhood in Bridgewater, Somerset County, counted more than 100 of the scavengers as they gathered each evening to roost. Most of the birds were in trees. Some were on houses.
Residents were concerned about vulture feces and whatever remnants from their carrion meals they might drop, and expressed the usual irrational fears that the vultures might attack children or pets, or spread disease.
The Bridgewater homeowners, like the rest of us, see vultures all the time, soaring with wings held in a V shape. But a large gathering of them is creepy and suggestive of death, even to those familiar with the species.
I have twice come across large roosts of vultures deep in the forest. Being alone with several dozen birds with 6-foot wingspans would have felt scary if I didn't know otherwise.
One of the Bridgewater residents called the Pleasantville office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, its Northeast Region Ecological Services. He was told that for $400 to $500, including permit costs, a biologist could hang up a vulture carcass and that would probably make the vultures relocate their roost.
Enough residents chipped in and the biologist hung the dead vulture upside down in one of the roost trees. Sure enough, in a week the vultures had moved their roost to parts unknown.
Funny that animals that specialize so expertly in using the dead would be put off by the body of one of their own.
Vultures probably can never escape their identity in human culture as omens of death just waiting for the misfortune of people and other animals.
From the point of view of nature, of course, they fill an important niche, recycling animal flesh in a way that minimizes the spread of disease.
Vultures are famous for their ability to eat rotting animals without getting salmonella, botulism, cholera, anthrax or a host of other diseases that would kill us. Maybe some day we'll learn something valuable about their superior immune system.
They also, unusually among birds, have a superb sense of smell. The Cornell Ornithology Lab says they put a significant portion of their brain power into smell and can detect as few as three parts per trillion, enabling them to find dead animals unseen beneath the trees.
When you think about it, vultures are the flying equivalent of one of our favorite animals, the dog. Dogs are primarily scavengers with a fabulous smell sense and a high-acid stomach that can digest just about anything.
The turkey vulture, our only vulture until the relatively recent move northward of similar black vultures, lives year-round from here to the tip of South America. In breeding season, they spread north through the rest of the U.S.
The vulture function is so essential to nature that it has sprung up independently in different places on Earth. Our turkey vulture, despite appearance and behavior pretty much exactly like the vultures of Europe, Africa and Asia, is not closely related to them.
A sequence of events similar to that in Bridgewater played out in Mount Holly this year.
Chasing the vultures could become significant work for the local Fish & Wildlife Service office, as roosts are moved from town to town.
That would be unfortunate, since the biologists have important work to do researching species for possible protection, such as the red knot.
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