Vultures are wintering locally, to the disgust of residents

Vultures circle Staunton, Va.
Vultures circle Staunton, Va. (The Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 9:52 PM

Molly Pallavicini has seriously considered selling her house to get away from her new neighbors. "They're disgusting," she said. They carry on in public. They hiss at each other. They use her driveway as a toilet.

"They are big black and turkey vultures," Pallavicini said, enough to darken the sky when she drives home from work about 5 p.m. to her house in Staunton, Va. "I've had as many as 50 of them at the house. When they take off and leave, it's such a loud noise, like a wreck or something."

Staunton, population 24,000, is the latest winter destination of federally protected vultures - about 500, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, more than ever before. After trying unsuccessfully to scare them away for weeks with fireworks, the USDA recently turned to firepower, killing at least two dozen each Monday and Tuesday night, and still the vultures haven't retreated.

Each year, this goes on with vultures and various birds and other wildlife in cities across the nation. Large numbers of vultures have also roosted in Leesburg and Lynchburg, Va., and recently in Columbia.

European starlings often invade Indianapolis and Omaha; they also flock to dairy farms, where they eat much of the food set out for cows and drop excrement in the rest. Canada Geese foul every golf course and park in the District and numerous states with their waste.

The USDA is the only agency authorized to kill vultures and other birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. A felony if convicted of killing a protected bird, the penalty is up to $200,000 for an organization, $100,000 for an individual and/or up to one year in prison.

Public works officials in Staunton and residents like Pallavicini can look at vultures but can't touch them. Vultures, of course, aren't much to look at. Dressed appropriately in black plumage, they serve an important role as the undertakers of the natural world, scarfing down carrion.

Vultures are what they eat, Pallavicini said. They stink, and they're mean. On New Year's Eve, they fought on her lawn. The next morning, "I walked out . . . and one was in my back yard, split open, bloody. I had to go out and get it so my dogs wouldn't eat it."

A USDA spokesman said vultures are the only birds that can't be banded for tracking because their excrement - which coats their legs - would quickly corrode the hardware. Their waste matter is so strong that pine needles have fallen off trees in Staunton where they roost overnight.

Staunton's problem started the way it always does this time of year in many cities. Like other living things, vultures get cold in remote country areas. Staunton and other cities are attractive because they're slightly warmer.

Late in December, the birds swooped into the northern sections of the city, including Baldwin Acres and Gibbs Hill.

At City Hall, phones at the public works department lit up. Director Thomas Sliwoski gave every caller the same spiel - basically, there wasn't much he could do. The birds usually fly off when the weather warms, but officials in Staunton didn't want them to get comfortable.

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