Late last fall, after the leaves had fallen, we were driving north out of town and passed a large, gnarled old tree with many twisting branches, and perched heavily on what seemed to be just about every branch was a large, humped, high-shouldered black bird. Framed against an ominous gray sky the black birds on the black tree looked like something out of a cartoon and, trained by cartoons, my first thought was "buzzards," which is my first thought every time I see vultures.
There aren't any buzzards around here. There aren't any buzzards in North America, and every time a movie cowboy says to another, "I'll leave you here for the buzzards," John James Audubon spins in his grave. Turkey vultures, though, are common. But turkey vultures tend to forage alone or in small groups, and I couldn't recall ever having seen that many all at once. I'm used to seeing three or four or five at most soaring over road cuts or at ground level dining on a deer carcass they are strong enough and co-operative enough to drag from the roadside up into the grass where they can eat their meal without having to flap off out of the way of passing cars every few minutes. Coming upon a dozen or more lurking together in a tree like that was startling and I slowed the car to get a better look and maybe see what future item on the lunch menu they were waiting for to die in the field beyond. I imagined that to bring that many vultures to one spot there must have been a herd of cows with the staggers out there.
Didn't see what they were licking their beaks over. What I saw was that they weren't turkey vultures.
Their feathers were black, not brown. Their bald heads and bills were gray, not red and bone-white.
Passing through the next town, we came across more of them. These were prowling the side of the road and, closer up, I could see that, big as they were, they were smaller than turkey vultures, squatter too. They struck me as uglier and meaner-looking as well, although that might have been an effect of there being so many of them together, pooling their ugliness and meanness.
"What kind of birds are those, Dad?" the Mannion guys and their mother wanted to know, as if I am the unimpeachable source of all things ornithological, an idea they picked up from their old man's habit of showing off the little bird lore that he has memorized.
"Beats the hell out of me," I said. "Definitely not turkey vultures though, unless they're a rare subspecies that works the coal mines."
I think at least two of my passengers were impressed that I knew what turkey vultures looked like well enough to spot that these weren't turkey vultures. The third passenger just harrumphed knowingly and went back to reading her magazine.
We were on our way to visit Mom and Pop Mannion and as soon as we arrived I hopped on the internet and called up Cornell University's Ornithology Lab's website, All about Birds.
Yep. Definitely not turkey vultures.
A new bird to add to the life list. Not as aesthetically pleasing an addition as a painted bunting or a northern parula, but you take them as they come.
Now, for all I know, I've walked past dozens of painted buntings and northern parulas over the years and missed them or paid them no close attention because I thought I was looking at sparrows. But you couldn't walk past a black vulture, particularly since a black vulture is a rarity. Black vultures travel in gangs. But in five years of living around here I'd never seen any before, with good reason.
They're new to the neighborhood.
They're relatively new to the state.
They were Southern birds. Southern as in the Southeastern portions of the United States and Southern as in South America. Cornell's map still has them ranging no farther north than parts of New Jersey. But apparently Jersey's a recently infested territory too.
Twenty years ago you didn't see them up here. Ten years ago you thought you were seeing things when you did.
Black vultures have been expanding their territory every which-way since World War II, probably following the road builders, as T. Edward Nickins reports in Audubon:
...black vultures are exploiting urbanizing landscapes, thanks to an increase in food sources such as roadkill and, from all indications, a warmer environment provided by growing acres of asphalt and concrete. In fact, the same things that draw new human residents to a burgeoning area are high on a vulture’s relocation wish list: Great roads. Warm climate. Lots of open space but still convenient to good shopping.
Climate change may be playing a role too:
As natural land cover is replaced by parking lots, asphalt, and buildings, air and surface temperatures rise. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that many urban areas have air temperatures up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding region. This so-called “urban heat island effect” is helpful to birds that require rising columns of heated air to locate food. “There is actually a new, manufactured thermal corridor that extends from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and on to New York,” says Bildstein. “Warmer urban areas create thermals, and there is no question that soaring birds are using them to great effect.”
Global warming may well be bringing them north, too. Black vultures soar higher than their turkey kin, and they tend to feed on larger prey. As overall temperatures inch upward, so does the thermal boundary at which carrion freezes, which makes it unusable to avian scavengers.
But it's possible that the ones around here didn't come this way as scavengers. There's a school not too far from here where, writes journalist and nature blogger Michael Risinit, "They came for the company and stayed for the food."
That’s the theory behind the inundation of wild black vultures at Green Chimneys School in Patterson, an eruption of traditionally uncommon feathered visitors.
“There was a time when we first began seeing them that we just saw them in the summer. Now, we see them all the time,” said Paul Kupchok, director of the school’s wildlife center.
The initial attraction appeared to be their two caged brethren – one of which was shot, the other apparently abandoned by its parents – who couldn’t be released to the wild and are part of the school’s animal-assisted therapy program. The school helps emotionally troubled children.
A handful at a time, the black vultures arrived, seemingly to commiserate with the school’s vultures. They since have learned about feeding time for Green Chimney’s 51 vultures, hawks, owls and eagles, who dine on a delectable selection of dead mice and rats. They told their friends, who told their friends, and so on.
Kupchok said he’s counted up to 60 black vultures at one time hunched in the trees of the school’s Patterson campus. The gathering might seem ominous, given their stereotype as an omen of death, but in reality it is annoying.
“There are literally days when they follow me around, swinging the pail (of rodents) and they try to get in the pail,” Kupchok said.
Smart birds, which makes them interesting to biologists, like Keith Bildstein, director of conservation science for Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
Black vultures are among the most resilient members of the vulture family, even though they are slightly smaller than their cousins, the turkey vultures. Black vultures can better tolerate human presence. While most turkey vultures migrate, black vultures are largely residents. The olfactory bulbs of black vultures are much less developed than those of turkey vultures, so they rely more on sight to find a rotting good meal. They tend to fly higher than the turkeys, spot other vultures circling over carrion, then soar in for the steal. And their smaller size is no impediment to their packlike scavenging techniques; black vultures will gather in large groups and drive turkey vultures off a prize find of carrion.
“They are extremely resourceful,” says Bildstein. While conducting vulture surveys in Central America, he has watched black vultures drag coconuts onto highways, wait for passing cars to smash the nuts, then eat from the broken shards.
Many bird lovers find this species’ quirky habits and odd looks fascinating. “Watch how black vultures fly,” says Elaine Leslie, a National Park Service biologist who has studied New World vultures in Florida. “Watch how they socialize. These are some of the coolest birds out there.”
On the other hand they can be more than a nuisance.
..roosting vultures congregate near homes and businesses, where they fly from trees to rooftops in the early morning to warm themselves in the sun. Once roosts are established, says Martin Lowney, who served as state APHIS director in Virginia until his recent relocation to New York, the birds “strip shingles from roofs, vomit all over the deck and grill, and tear kids’ toys apart.”
Vultures gather on communications towers, where their feces irritate workers. At lakeside neighborhoods in Florida and boat ramps in Virginia, large numbers tear apart boat cushions and strip windshield wipers from cars. And, unlike turkey vultures, they “take live prey on a regular basis,” says Michael Avery, who runs a USDA wildlife research field station outside of Gainesville, Florida. “Their tight social organization might help them subdue and kill larger prey that turkey vultures couldn’t.” They are known to have killed and eaten striped skunks and opossums, hatchling leatherback sea turtles, and young night-herons, and ranchers complain that black vultures prey on newborn sheep and calves.
At Green Chimneys they've been known to look for doors left ajar, push their way in, and set about tossing the place.
Even the President of a local Audubon chapter doesn't like them.
Not to mention that they're kind of repulsive:
“They are ugly as *!%#,” fumes Alan Ogden, [a resident of a neighborhood in Leesburg, Virginia hundreds of black vultures have decided to call home], “They smell like ammonia and sewage. I walk around the corner and 50 of them are sitting on gravestones, hissing. It’s like living in a horror movie. If it were up to me, I’d kill every one of them.”
That smell Ogden describes as ammonia and sewage is in fact ammonia and sewage. Black vultures shit, piss, and puke a lot.
They are excretory machines.
They've even evolved a way of using their shit and piss to cool themselves.
Black vultures vomit defensively—“with wonderful quickness and power,” marveled James John Audubon. Their distinctive urinary habits are astonishingly clever; the practice of urohydrosis—excreting down their legs—is a useful means of chilling the blood in their lower extremities and redistributing it through the body to stay cool.
And all that shit, piss, and puke is highly acidic. It'll take the paint off your car or burn right through the shingles on your roof if vultures take up roosting up there, which they did at this house up in New Paltz.
The owner's had to replace the roof twice. The damage went right on through into the house costing $8000 to repair, according to Jeremiah Horrigan's story in yesterday's Times-Herald Record. Up to 50 vultures have been counted on the nice flat roof at one time. The feds have come to the owner's aid. See those two white triangles on the roof? One's just to the left of the telephone poll, the other's at the edge of the picture on the right. You're looking at two of the legs of two tripods set up by the USDA Wildlife Services. Click on the photo and you'll get a better look. There's something strung up from each tripod.
I think they are---or were---turkey vultures. But the point is not lost on black vultures.
The feds keep vulture carcasses on ice for just this purpose. These two were shot at some airport where they'd become a menace to planes. Vultures don't eat their own and apparently the sight of a dead friend or relative spooks them.
Horrigan reports that "the freshness-expiration date on a dead and dangling vulture is about a month". After that, the fed in charge promises that "the house, though not the neighborhood, should be vulture-free."