Each spring the City of Hinckley Ohio eagerly awaits their return on March 15. Citizens throw a party to welcome them home. Prior to that large flocks may be seen in southwestern Ohio as they make the annual trek north. The process is currently being reversed as those flocks, sometimes called kettles, are now grouping to fly south. Of course, how quickly they leave the area depends on the weather and food supply. As long as there is appropriate carrion for the birds, they are likely to remain in the area. They in this case are the Turkey and Black Vulture species.
The vultures are certainly an interesting, and sometime nuisance species. They are Mother Nature’s cleanup crew. Most people likely see them in the summer along the highways cleaning up various road kill animals. They may also be spotted riding the thermal updrafts to soar effortlessly while looking for food. Perhaps you’ve never really given them another thought. They are uniquely adapted to what they eat and the task they perform. However, many find those thoughts rather disgusting.
The turkey vulture is a large black bird with a six-foot wingspan. At a glance they appear bald but they actually have a lot of small feathers on their head. This is just one of the adaptations to help keep clean while feeding on dead animals. The adult has a bright red head while the immature vultures have a black head. In flight this vulture can be distinguished from hawks and crows because it soars extensively, holding its wings in a broad “V” shape. Their keen sense of smell helps them find the next meal from great distances.
The Turkey Vulture’s distinctive slow, teetering flight helps the bird soar at low altitudes, where it is best able to use its nose to find carrion. They will feed on the ground as they are unable to carry off the carrion. However they are rather gangly on the ground moving in unsteady hops and often using their wings for stability. While many may gather around a meal, usually only one vulture will be feeding. Their stomach acid is ten to one-hundred times stronger than human stomach acid. This is needed to digest the bacteria that has formed on the dead meat they eat. Their urine, which they utilize to cleanse their feet, also has strong acid content.
Black Vultures have much shorter tails, ending at the toe tips, and they hold their wings nearly flat, unlike a Turkey Vulture’s V-shaped posture. Black Vultures have whitish outer primaries that form a white star near the wingtip, and the rest of the wing is jet black, not two-toned like Turkey Vultures. Despite their size, Turkey Vultures are often driven off by smaller Black Vultures. The only noise they make is a loud hissing sound when disturbed. It is wise to take notice and avoid a confrontation with a vulture. The primary defense mechanism is vomiting up a lump of semi-digested meat. This foul smelling substance deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. The acid content from the stomach is enough to also sting the eyes of any potential predator.
All of their habits make them an unwelcome neighbor around houses, beaches and boat docks. Should populations become too high human-bird conflicts will increase. Currently there are significant conflicts at Rocky Fork State Park where the large number, are causing property damage. The most significant damage appears to be to boats docked at the lake where covers and interiors have taken a beating from the birds. Additionally vehicle paint have been damaged from the bird droppings. There have been a number of complaints and upset dock holders. Adding insult to injury, boat owners have found that their homeowner insurance may not cover the damage.
Brooke Betit, Public Information Officer with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources provided some additional information, “At Rocky Fork State Park, a number of black vultures have been damaging property. In an effort to curtail this damage, ODNR staff have taken measures to disperse the vultures through the use of “bird banger launchers” and blanks. The Rocky Fork State Park staff have also applied for a nuisance permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove 30 birds.
These measures must be taken as the black vulture is protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty. The permit has yet to be approved. The ODNR staff at Rocky Fork State Park estimate the black vulture flock to be about 300 in total. The removal of 30 birds should significantly deter the flock, as they respond to seeing one of their own being killed. The permit can be modified if ODNR were to reach the 30-bird limit and the problem was still an issue.”
She continues, “During this time, ODNR would continue to use non-lethal measures including the bird banger launchers, closing dumpster lids, relocating dumpsters and picking up fish-cleaning stations. Our staff is continuing to work with the USDA and the US Fish &Wildlife Service through this issue, as the birds are protected. The USDA has utilized both the lethal and non-lethal methods in the past with towns and villages to great effect. The ODNR hopes to do the same. If anyone has had property damaged by the black vultures, they are encouraged to file reports with ODNR.”
The vultures certainly have a valuable clean up role in nature. However, as with about any wildlife, when there are too many conflicts are bound to happen. Hopefully the non-lethal control efforts will have an impact. It’s really a shame that the problem was allowed to happen for so long before corrective actions were taken. Property owners have incurred undue damages and significant expenses. Like the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, so sometimes the best practice is to anticipate and avoid the conflicts as much as possible.
Buzzards roosting on an old barn roof in eastern Greene County.
Larry S. Moore is a local resident and long-time outdoor columnist.