As vultures thrive, they're even less welcome

Roadkill Warriors
Vultures like this one over Schleicher County, Texas, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.Tony Gutierrez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maybe if they were pretty, the ubiquitous buzzards that soar over Texas and elsewhere on their way to dine on some carcass wouldn't be viewed with such repugnance or be considered nuisances.

"Unquestionably, they're as ugly as sin," says Ian Tizard, a Texas A&M University professor of immunology and director of the school's Schubot Exotic Bird Center.

The misnamed birds — they're really vultures, and either turkey or black vultures — range over much of the United States, and they're even welcomed as a sure sign of spring on their annual March return to Hinckley, Ohio.

But their proliferation is making them unwelcome, from high-rises in Florida to ranches in Texas, denying them the respect they may deserve as Mother Nature's vacuum cleaners. Think roadkill.

"We'd have a lot more smelly dead bodies around the place if they weren't there to clean it up," Tizard said.

But Texas ranchers increasingly are telling wildlife authorities that black vultures — the more aggressive version of the two birds and reaching 25 inches in length with wingspans of 5 feet — are killing calves, lambs and young goats.

"They're prospering," said Tizard, who's studied birds for more than 40 years. "Clearly if they're killing cows that otherwise would live, that indeed is a cause for some significant concern."

Protection waived more often
City commissioners in Madisonville, about 100 miles north of Houston, gave their blessing in January to shooting vultures blamed for property damage as long as folks obtain the proper federal permits.

Vultures are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Just last month, officials in Barstow, Fla., moved to exclude them from protection on a local bird sanctuary island.

Randy Smith, a San Antonio-based biologist with the Texas Wildlife Services Program, said complaints about buzzards have soared.

"Ten years ago, it was a rarity, but it's pretty frequent nowadays," he said. "Usually we'll end up assisting the rancher. Nine times out of 10, we'll assist him getting a permit."

Along with trapping or killing, the permits allow the use of harassment to try to drive the birds away.

The Halifax Health Medical Center outside Daytona Beach, Fla., has been using the method since early this year, apparently with some success. Metal spikes, sprinklers and a loud roof alarm are used to discourage vultures from roosting.

However, harassment may not work for long.

"They're very smart," Smith said. "These vultures learn over time what you're doing doesn't hurt them."

The turkey vulture is named for its bald red head. Its cousin, the black vulture, has a gray head. Turkey vultures rely on their sense of smell to find food. Black vultures use sight, even watching turkey vultures find the food and then pushing their way into a roadside buffet.

Bare neck helps at feeding time
Their featherless head is a handy evolutionary result.

"You have a bare neck because you don't want your neck all matted with blood if you're sticking your head into a carcass," Tizard said. "The bare skins are an adaptation, but it sure makes for an ugly bird."

Poking around inside dead animals also means they have a strong immune system. Add to that an absence of real predators and an abundance of food, and it's no wonder the population of one of the nation's more common birds has taken off.

Tizard said people are at least partly responsible for the birds' population growth.

"Imagine what Texas was like before cars," Tizard said. "There would have been dead critters around the place but never so obvious like the possums and skunks along the side of the road and roadkill deer."

"And, on the whole, people don't bother them," he added.

However, the aggression that the birds can show toward newly born calves and other vulnerable animals doesn't usually extend to people, Tizard said.

"They're going to run away from people," he said. "My impression is they're going to get close to an animal that can't respond. A dying animal, they're waiting. As they say, the vultures are closing in. And that's exactly what happens."