Taking on Leesburg’s vultures, with ‘bangers and screamers,’ lasers and a dead vulture


A lone vulture sits apart from the committee, waiting to see what will happen when the USDA begins its dispersal program Monday. The vultures dispersed. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

To recap, the 200 or so vultures need to go because their excrement is extremely acidic and they can destroy both trees and important stuff on houses and cars. They are a protected species, so you can’t shoot them.


A member of the USDA's Wildlife Services Program hangs a vulture effigy in a Leesburg tree where a committee of vultures has begun nesting. After the effigy was raised, very few vultures cared to return. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Carol Bannerman, a USDA spokeswoman, said research has shown vultures really don’t like effigies, and that it cuts down the amount of time it takes to permanently scare them away from 30 days to seven. On Monday, just the tossing of the rope itself, high into a pine tree already occupied by dozens of vultures, scared the whole committee into the sky and out of the neighborhood. Maybe they knew what the rope portended. Maybe they weren’t looking forward to hanging around with a recently deceased colleague. Creepy. Bad vulture karma. Lot of other dead-vulture-less trees available.

Somehow, through vulture conversation or vulture text message, the full committee did not return for the next couple of hours. Every so often, one or two would swoop back in, either for reconnaisance or because they hadn’t gotten the messages. That’s when Blixt or one of his crew would take out a little “pyrotechnics pistol” and fire what looks and sounds like a bottle rocket into the sky. The industry term for these is ”bangers and screamers,” for the noises the rounds make as they ascend and then explode.

It totally worked. The vultures wanted no part of banging or screaming, and probably only five or six rounds were fired Monday.


Just hanging around in Leesburg. A sky full of vultures on Monday afternoon, before the USDA began its highly effective dispersal techniques. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The effort to permanently remove the vultures from Mayfair was anticipated to take at least a week, Blixt said. He still had another technical tool up his sleeve for later this week: the “avian dissuader,” a laser light that doesn’t harm the vultures, but does annoy them as an unfamiliar element. Cool name too. I’d like an “editor dissuader,” please.

Blixt said he’d been coming to Leesburg and its environs for 13 years to deal with vultures. Several years ago, they had picked some trees near the old Leesburg Hospital and Union Cemetery, which at least made metaphorical sense.

But why Leesburg? No one really knows. The vultures do prefer suburban or urban to rural, both for volume of available dead animals to eat, and for the reduced likelihood of taking a shotgun blast in the tail feathers, Blixt said.

A small group of neighbors came out to see the vultures-and-fireworks show, and the occasional “banger” or “screamer” had the younger members of the crowd chattering and laughing excitedly.

“I came over to see the vultures, and because I didn’t want to do my homework,” said Sophia Cevenini, 9. Her friend Sidney Hess, 8, said that she came “to get exercise, and my Mommy told me I had to go outside.”

The show will likely be here all week, at least. After that, it’s up to the committee. Of vultures.


As many as 200 vultures have picked the Mayfair neighborhood of Leesburg to roost this winter. Here’s what they looked like last week, pre-USDA relocation program. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.

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