Tell people two vultures have made a home at the intersection of K and 11th streets in Northwest Washington, and they will likely ask the same question Charlie Dewitt did on a recent afternoon.
“The bird variety?” he wondered.
It is K Street after all, renowned for office buildings filled with highly paid, powerful lobbyists who, along with others in the city’s political food chain, are often called scavengers — and worse.
“We have vultures and turkeys and other kinds of creatures here,” joked Dewitt, a lobbyist who has worked in Washington for 25 years. As he stood at the corner where the giant birds have been sighted in recent weeks, Dewitt said he hadn’t yet seen them. But he imagined they wouldn’t be at a loss for political roadkill in that location, just blocks from the District’s most famous address, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
First the nation’s capital had its snowy owl. Now, it has its vultures. Both are rare sightings for such a densely populated area. But while the white fluffy night hunters are inspiration for stuffed animals, the black-winged carcass-feeders are ripe for one-liners. They are a political cartoon begging for a caption. (A group of vultures, by the way, is called a committee. Have at it).
When former Washingtonian and birds of prey expert Mike Dupuy heard the location that the vultures had chosen, he offered a three-word response: “That sounds appropriate.”
Dupuy, who lives in central Pennsylvania and gives public presentations on birds of prey, said since only two vultures have been sighted, it’s likely they are breeding.
“It sounds like it could be some weird nesting thing where, for whatever reason, they’ve selected that area to breed,” he said. And once they find a territory they like, they tend to continually return to it, he said. “It becomes an address.”
The birds have been sighted on two buildings: an abandoned one with a red brick façade and the Asbury United Methodist Church. Since people don’t generally walk looking upward, the sightings have mostly come from those who work in a glass-walled office building across the street, one filled with representatives of companies such as Global Automakers, Shell Oil Company and FaegreBD Consulting.
Andrew Davis, the delegate for the government of Catalonia who is based in that building, said there have been days when he has been on the phone and looked out his third-floor window to catch the birds soaring by.
“More than anything, I was surprised,” he said. “You’re just so used to seeing pigeons.”
When he saw them this week, he said a small bird seemed to be trailing them, but he couldn’t tell if it was a young vulture.
David Zook, who works at FaegreBD Consulting, described the experience of seeing the birds the past few weeks as “an amazing thing to watch.”
He has seen them perch on the church spires like gargoyles and glide up the road with wings that have been known to easily span 5 feet. But mostly, he said, they stay on the roof “doing what vultures do in the spring, if you get my drift.”
Vultures sometimes congregate in the suburbs. Last year 200 of them started roosting in a Northern Virginia neighborhood, creating a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie and damaging cars and roofs with their acidic excrement. A wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture hung a dead vulture in the tree they liked and then used a “pyrotechnics pistol” to scare them off.
But two vultures in the city are less of an annoyance and more a source of wonder. Described as the “garbage men of nature,” the birds often are seen hunched over roadkill on country roads, but Dupuy said it’s possible they could be living off dead squirrels and other city animals. Unlike hawks that find their food by seeing it, he said vultures use their sense of smell, following the scent of decay to its source (cue the “House of Cards” references).
On a recent afternoon as people walked past the spot where the vultures now nest, many tried to guess what carrion had drawn them to the area. A few people blamed the rise in food trucks and the waste from restaurants. Others let their minds go to more humorous places. One Department of Homeland Security employee who asked not to be identified, undoubtedly because he’s not authorized to discuss vultures, suggested they were “after Obama’s political appointees.”
Bill Miller, chief lobbyist for the Business Roundtable, wondered if Washington’s partisan gridlock had drawn the birds to K Street.
“I suppose you could make the case,” he said, “there is a lot more dead legislation than alive.”