Wildlife group hopes that Leesburg will show some appreciation for vultures

In Hinckley, Ohio, the annual event is called Buzzard Sunday, a beloved community celebration of turkey vultures that dates to 1957. In Wenonah, NJ., the East Coast Vulture Festival was launched in 2006 to educate the public about the hundreds of vultures that make the town their winter home. When the birds return every March to Boyce Thompson State Park in Superior, Ariz., the park holds Welcome Back Buzzards Day.

Here in Leesburg, wildlife advocates are hoping to add the town to the list of U.S. localities that celebrate, rather than bemoan, the presence of the large, bald-headed scavengers.

“There are 100 or more communities, zoos, parks and schools around the world that hold these type of events,” said Alysoun Mahoney, conservation advocacy chair of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. “These are the kinds of models we’re looking toward to try to turn the whole mind-set in Leesburg around.”

In recent years, Leesburg has become an increasingly popular spot for vultures looking to roost comfortably during winter’s cold. Upwards of 200 birds — a grouping often called a “committee” or a “venue” — have become recurring visitors in certain neighborhoods, where they arrive around Halloween and typically stay until early March.

Leesburg’s vulture committee used to assemble only once every three to five years, said Jeff Dubé, spokesman for the Leesburg Police Department. But recently, the gathering has occurred annually, and the birds’ arrival has not exactly been welcomed by the community.


Roosting vultures begin settling in for the night behind Mayfair Drive in Leesburg. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

“The committee of vultures has been coming back, not only to the same geographic area, but they’ve come back to the same houses, the same back yards,” Dubé said. “It’s really interesting to see their migration habits.”

But “interesting” isn’t the word that some homeowners would use to describe the situation. Dubé noted that the vultures “can be really destructive” en masse, and the police department has received complaints and pleas for help from affected residents.

“They’ll pick at cars. They’ll eat the rubber off the windshield wipers. They’ll strip a tree,” Dubé said. “Once you have 100 or 200 birds in a back yard, their droppings will coat the house, and the ammonia smell is absolutely unbearable.”

This year, as Leesburg officials develop a strategy to deal with the vultures and the resulting community angst, local conservationists have joined the discussion, with the hope of encouraging residents to be less fearful and more accepting of the stereotypically ominous-looking birds.

“We’re going to support the town’s efforts through education. A lot of people . . . have fears due to an incomplete understanding of vultures,” Mahoney said. “We’ve already put articles in our newsletter, and those kinds of steps will continue. But we’d also like to host a vulture appreciation event, and this fall would be a good time to try to launch that.”

Mahoney said the group will aim to dispel some of the myths surrounding vultures and teach residents about their benefits. By feeding on carrion, the birds can help prevent the spread of disease and contamination of groundwater, wildlife officials say.

As the vultures started leaving Leesburg this month, Dubé met with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy and other town officials to discuss how best to deal with the vultures when they make their anticipated return in the fall. In the past, local authorities have joined with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discourage the vultures with a variety of methods, including noisy pyrotechnic displays and hanging a vulture carcass from a tree. Because the birds are a protected species, killing them is not an option.

Pyrotechnics worked well in January, Dubé said, when police and officials with the USDA successfully chased off a committee of about 200 vultures that had made themselves at home in a Leesburg neighborhood.

“This year, they were more spread out than they normally were in year’s past,” Dubé said. “Usually they flock to a specific area, but this time we had them in two or three areas in town.”

Mahoney said that the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy does not object to displacing the vultures or encouraging them to roost in less populated areas when necessary but that she hopes to see humane methods used — hanging a dead-vulture effigy, she said, caused some concern among conservancy members.

Dubé said, “We’ve agreed to keep [the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy] in the loop about what the town is experiencing as far as complaints . . . and to use them as a resource for public education and notification.”

The officials will be meeting in the coming months to develop a comprehensive plan, he said. When the birds return in the fall, he said, the town will be ready.

“We’re at the end of the current cycle, and we won’t really hit it again until Halloween,” Dubé said. “Time is on our side.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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