Fed up with vultures

Police use bird cannon to scare them away

By Joe Beck

FRONT ROYAL — Residents around Jamestown Road and Cavalier Drive in Front Royal have been looking up at the sky with a mix of fear and loathing around dusk for the past several years.

Every day is Halloween as black vultures, hundreds of them, begin to descend into their roost in a stand of neighborhood pine trees. One woman likened the spectacle to the set of a real life horror movie made all the more unsettling by the ramshackle, long vacant house that stands forlornly beneath the trees where the vultures perch at night.

Few creatures are more reliable harbingers of death than black vultures with their hearty appetites for all creatures deceased and decaying. And the vulture’s black plumage, bare head and sinister hooked bill make it a perfect fit for its role as nature’s mortician.

“They’re filthy, disgusting and smelly,” said one woman, who would only give her first name as Maureen. “They have no natural predators. Nothing wants to eat them.”

Maureen said the flapping of their wings when they are disturbed at nighttime “is like horror movie sound.”

Leslie Fiddler said she and her husband counted 137 roosting birds a few years ago, but others say the flock is several times that number, all of them unwelcome visitors.

“It’s classic case of NIMBY,” Fiddler said, invoking the acronym that stands for not in my backyard. “Nobody wants them in their neighborhood.”

Front Royal Police Chief Norman Shiflett heard the pleas of neighborhood residents repulsed by the vultures’ stench and droppings.

The chief has responded with a plan to shoo the birds away with a bang and boom. His chosen instrument is a bird cannon, a simple device made of about a foot-long pipe and a propane gas tank.

The cannon relies on a valve that allows propane gas to flow from the tank into cannon. Pressure builds up inside the cannon and triggers a switch that ignites the propane and creates an explosion every 30 seconds to three minutes.

Front Royal police officers placed the cannon in the backyard of the vacant home, just a few feet below and away from the stand of the trees where the vultures had been roosting.

The vultures were back again Monday evening, riding the thermals high above the neighborhood then slowly making their way west, circling, circling, circling lower, their wing beats rustling the air until they alighted on the tree branches.

Meanwhile, the cannon had fallen silent.

Shiflett said in interview Friday that the tank had run out of propane but officers were able to get more fuel the next day and get the cannon working.

Shiflett said he saw no vultures in the trees when he visited the neighborhood Thursday evening, the last day the cannon was in use.

But the birds had returned by Friday evening, and Shiflett was getting ready to break out the cannon again.

“It’s only a handful, nothing like what we had been seeing, Shiflett said of sighting, adding, “I’ll probably put the cannon back.”

Resident Janice Miller said she worried that the vulture flock may prove hard to dislodge from its nocturnal perch.

“It’s not exactly what we want in the neighborhood, but I don’t know what they can do about it,” she said of police efforts to get the birds to find a more suitable roost.

Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology description of black vultures fits well with their appearance in the Jamestown neighborhood.

The lab’s website, “http://www.allaboutbirds.org”>allaboutbirds.org, tells readers to “look for black vultures in open areas within forested landscapes. They typically nest and roost in wooded areas and soar above open areas to seek their food. Black vultures have substantially increased their range northward in recent decades.”

The website also says the vultures can be found along the sides of highways feeding on road kill and checking the contents of Dumpsters.

Jennifer Cromwell, assistant state director of Wildlife Services with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said her office has fielded many complaints about black vultures and turkey vultures, the two species found in the state.

The birds’ droppings can damage property and even trees. They have also been known to rip covers off of patio furniture and boats, and peel off shingles and window stripping. Although they usually limit their feeding to the carcasses of dead animals, they will occasionally target young calves or cows giving birth.

“They tend to gather in large numbers in wintertime,” Cromwell said. “That being said, we have vultures year around.”

The Virginia Department Game and Inland Fisheries cites recent studies that agreed that the state’s population of black vultures has been increasing at 5 to 10 percent a year. Cromwell estimated their life expectancy at 15 to 20 years.

Vultures and their nests and eggs are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Environmentalists salute them for their role in cleaning up the remains of dead animals.

But Cromwell said harassment of the birds to encourage them to relocate away from human populations is legal under federal law, although it may not always be a complete success.

“It will certainly help, and it’s worth a try,” Cromwell said of the bird cannon. “But sometimes it’s better to use multiple methods of harassment.”

Fiddler blamed a plentiful food supply for attracting all the vultures to her neighborhood.

“When I think of all the road kill around here, I can see why they’re so well fed,” she said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com