They’re bald. They’re ugly. Some call them buzzards and some call them vultures. And they could eat your livestock or pets.
The city of Lake Alfred is spending more than $20,000 to get rid of vultures that rest on its water tower.
According to Michael Avery, a researcher at the Gainesville Wildlife Field Station, the birds’ urine and regurgitated fluids are causing damage to a local property.
Avery is an internationally recognized expert in avian wildlife management based in Gainesville at the U.S. Department of Agriculture field station. He holds an courtesy faculty position with IFAS at the wildlife ecology and conservation department at the University of Florida.
“They will sit on the trucks or the vehicles, tear the weather stripping around the windows and windshield wipers,” Avery said. “Here in Gainesville, there’s a playground out hear Newnans Lake that they’ll sit on the play ground equipment and their excrement will cause those areas to be quickly unuseable.”
Vultures, a protected species, are causing these problems throughout the state and nation. The birds provide a vital benefit to the ecosystem by taking care of dead and decaying wildlife. That behavior may have undesirable side effects when the birds move into more heavily populated areas.
The USDA National Wildlife Research Center in Gainesville has been studying their behavior and movement patterns to find non-harmful ways of dealing with them.
Avery and two colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a mathematical formula in 2009 that determines how many birds can be removed from the local population without endangering the species.
“They are slow moving and they usually are in numbers; they’re not singly,” Avery said.
‘A major problem for aircraft’
Avery said both turkey and black vultures are “major problems for aircrafts at both civilian airports as well as military airports.”
According to an FAA study, vultures cause more damage to planes than any other bird.
This problem has been studied more frequently since 2009, when Captain Sully Sullenberger was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River after geese flew into the engines.
Gainesville Regional Airport operations manager Shaun Blevins said airports are working with biologists from the USDA to prevent vultures from causing the same accident the geese did.
“Vultures like open spaces and they also like antennas, and we have both here at the airport,” Blevins said. “Prior to 2010, we used to have both turkey vultures and black vultures here at the airport. They used to come here in the morning, fly right through the flight path, hang out here all day, and then towards the evening they would fly back out.”
Blevins suggests implementing multiple strategies. The airport currently has effigies of dead vultures hanging upside down, evil eye balloons that reflect the sun, air cannons and anti-perching devices, all designed to scare away vultures without causing any harm.
“The fortunate thing about the vultures is that it’s a cheap solution,” Blevins said.
He said the airport got the effigy from the USDA for about $300.
“So that is pretty cost effective to only spend $300 a year to have a vulture-free problem,” he said.
Adapting to the environment
The USDA said vulture numbers are increasing because they’re adapting to human activity.
Satchel Raye, owner of Satchel’s Pizza in Gainesville, said he called the USDA four years ago after vultures made a roost by a pond in his backyard.
“The vultures would come there and roost every year,” Raye said. “Hundreds and hundreds of them would come and they would be in the trees and in the roof and in the yard. They just made a mess.”
The USDA hung the vulture effigy in Raye’s tree, and after about a week, the vultures were gone. On the rare occasion they return, he said he scares them away by firing off a flare gun.
“The problem is that the vultures would just have to move to some other body of water, so if they’re not bothering me, it just means they’re bothering someone else,” Raye said.
Vultures have networks of roosts, so if scared off, they’ll move or create new roosts, according to Avery.
“Besides the problems that they cause for people, we have to keep in mind that they are an integral part of the natural communities of animals and plants,” Avery said. “Their function in the communities generally is that of a scavenger scooping up and eating dead animals. We should be cognizant of that as we look at ways to solve these problems when they come into contact with human activity.”
The National Wildlife Research Center in Gainesville puts tags on the vultures while being studied. The Center is studying their behavior and movement patterns.
Turkey vultures can be identified by their red bald faces. They are found almost nationwide and are almost exclusively scavengers, according to the USDA
In addition to being scavengers, black vultures are also predatory birds. “There is no doubt that black vultures continue to attack, kill, and eat domestic animals,” said Avery.
A palm tree in the flight pen. Avery explained that the damaged caused to this tree is from just a couple vultures, but if there were hundreds roost on top of it, the damage would be much greater.
The National Wildlife Research Center Gainesville Field Station is a 26-acre site with eight enclosures and two ½ acre flight pens, one of which is used to study vultures. Around feeding time, vultures in the area will gather near the flight pen hoping to get some of the food.
A vulture effigy is hung from an antenna at the Gainesville Regional Airport. The vultures like to perch on the antennas which damages them.
Evil eye balloons are hung around the runways to scare off vultures. There is a reflector on the balloons that, when the sun strikes it, scares off the birds.
The Gainesville Regional Airport has air cannons that will fire off every 20 minutes to keep vultures away. They will move the cannons around the runway throughout the day as needed.
The effigy hung from an antenna at the Gainesville Regional Airport has been successful at keeping the birds off of it. The effigies cost $300 and last a year or more.