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Besieged By Buzzards

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Swarms of black-winged buzzards and vultures circling the skies are unnerving, but wildlife officials say the birds' impact is more psychological than physical.

By SHAINA STOCKTON
Staff

Groups of black silhouettes circle the air over the hospital and hover around local businesses and residences, roosting in trees and giving some people the creeps.
During the winter months, scavenger bird sightings in the Twin County area have become more common. As vultures and buzzards settle in for their long winter’s nap, the community is not feeling quite as comfortable.
In fact, many questions from the public have been raised, such as concerns about sanitation and the potential for spreading diseases.
There’s also a general sense of unease felt about the birds because of their very nature as carrion-feeders and their cultural association with death.

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For those who aren’t seasoned bird-watchers, vultures and buzzards are commonly confused with one another, as the names are often used synonymously. Vultures are distinguishable by their smaller heads, which are usually not covered in feathers, and long beaks; while the common buzzard more closely resembles a hawk.
One major difference, however, is that common buzzards are not as fond of roosting in large groups. So for those who can’t (or don’t want to) get up close, one way to identify a vulture problem is if there are a large number of them roosting together.
According to Galax Police Captain James Cox, the police department hasn’t received a call regarding a vulture or buzzard problem this year.
“But we’ve all seen them roosting near the hospital,” Cox said.
Hospital maintenance and grounds director Kevin Reedy said that the birds had been spotted in the woods between the hospital and the highway for the past month. He assured that the presence of the birds has not caused any kind of negative impact on the grounds or facility.
A resident of Hillsville, who requested that she remain anonymous, has dealt with a more negative experience. She told the Gazette that a staggering number of the birds have been roosting in her back yard for the past three winters.
“There are easily over a hundred of them,” the woman said. “They’ve been here before. They leave us in the spring, and now they’re back.”
Throughout the years of roosting, they have developed a pattern of moving from tree to tree in her yard. “Last year, their wings beat all of the needles off one of the pine trees,” she said.
Their presence has made her wary about going into her own yard in the evenings, even to take her pet shih-tzu out for a walk. “We don’t like having them right in our backyard where they swarm every evening,” she said. “Nobody likes that many big birds near them.”
So what is it that keeps bringing these birds back every year?
According to Chad Fox, district supervisor of USDA Wildlife Services in Christiansburg, vultures commonly roost in urban areas during the winter months. Reasons for this, he says, include certain thermal benefits and types of trees that are common in cities and towns, particularly white pines.
Vultures do not attack healthy prey, but rather feed on dying or dead animals, earning them their stigma as ghoulish creatures.
They roost in the evenings in large groups, creating several potential issues.
“With such a bird roost, accumulation of fecal droppings under the roost site causes concern about health issues,” Fox said.
Vultures also use vomiting as a defense mechanism when they feel that they are being approached in a menacing way.
Another problem, Fox said, is that these animals are fond of rooftops, where they leave more droppings and do structural damage by “picking” at the roofing material.
While the experience of hosting these birds is not a pleasant one, research has shown that getting rid of them is not exactly a simple task.
For starters, all vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918. Killing them is considered a felony punishable by a $100,000 dollar fine and a year in jail for any individual convicted, said Cox.
The alternative, wildlife officials say, is to move them.
For residents with vultures and buzzards, Fox suggested using something that every vulture hates: noise.
“There are special fireworks designed to disperse the birds. The issue would be to get permission from local police in order to use them,” he said. Repeated each evening roughly around 10 to 20 minutes before dark for over a week, the birds will grow tired of the ruckus and move to another area.
Not all noises are as effective. The Hillsville resident who spoke to The Gazette said she tried to scare the vultures away by beating against the side of her garage. “They didn’t even flinch,” she said.
Another practice that Fox mentioned was the use of effigies, or dead vultures, strung up in the trees in which they’ve chosen to roost.
David Young of Hillsville attempted to help the woman by employing a coyote call as the birds gathered to roost. “They all took off after we did that, and they didn’t come back that night,” he said.
(There is no report whether Young’s call attracted coyotes to replace the vultures.)
Fox noted that these infestations are not an uncommon issue. “This is a common problem throughout Virginia. It’s widespread, there’s no one special spot that they like.”
This means that once the birds have been frightened out of one spot, they won’t travel very far to find another. “To move them out of an entire neighborhood would have to be a community effort,” Fox said.