Monday was Day One of the effort by Leesburg, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to remove the committee of vultures who have made the Mayfair neighborhood near Edwards Ferry Road their winter home. As always on this job, it was fun and educational — a group of vultures is known as a committee, you know — and from the outset, it seemed to work. Except that the promised, much anticipated “pyrotechnics and lasers” weren’t really needed much.
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.
As the sun started to set around 3:30, the vultures began circling and swooping and landing in several of their preferred trees behind a house on Mayfair Drive. And doing it silently, which makes it spookier. That’s when Dage Blixt, supervisory wildlife biologist for the USDA, and his team, started with their first tactic: Hanging an effigy. Not a stuffed replica of a vulture with a sign that said “Vultures Out of Leesburg!” or something insulting like that. An actual, dead vulture on a rope, hanging upside down in the trees.
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.
Unfortunately, several dozen of the birds seemed to regroup a short distance away, near Leesburg Elementary School, Leesburg police Lt. Jeffrey Dube discovered. It wasn’t clear Monday if that was going to be a permanent relocation spot for the committee.
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.