Vultures make themselves at home in Shenandoah Valley
STAUNTON, Va. (AP) — The first thing you need to know is: they’re here because you’re here.
They wait in one of December’s empty trees, on the high edge of a neighborhood hill on Fillmore Street, looking ungainly even at rest, like the unwanted ornaments still attached to the Christmas tree dragged curbside. One near the top spreads its wings like a nightmarish angel to gather the warmth of the rising sun.
Examined closer they appear a gathering of grumpy church elders going through some necessary but uncomfortable ritual. Bulky dark jackets, shoulders hunched under the weight of their collective responsibility, surprisingly small heads dotted with beady but gentle eyes which see everything.
From a hundred feet away, they are aware of you taking pictures of them. In every image you frame they are staring right at you. Their eyesight — and their sense of smell — far exceed yours.
The local churches chime 9 a.m. each a few minutes apart, and the vultures in the tree begin the impossible act of flight with a similar slightly-out-of-synch organization.
Like an old oversized umbrella suddenly bursting into utility, the wings spread out, out across six feet of space. The awkward chicken-like feet slip from the branch and then they are aloft, floating and circling, a few corrective flaps sliding into wide arcs capturing the swell of the warming air. Stabilized, their bodies assume a graceful dihedral curve that maximizes their ability to soar.
Graceful at a distance. Ugly up close.
They are here because you’re here. And because you’re here there are dead things all over the place — dead deer, dead squirrels, raccoons, opossum, rats, other birds, struck by cars and trucks on the roads that carry you where you need to go. And because you’re here the city blooms to their senses like an oasis in winter, heat spiraling from every home, hills carved out by development providing differential for them to drop and hover, soar and descend and, finally, feed.
They’re here, and they’re here in great numbers. A 2011 federal report estimated the number of vultures living in Staunton to be over 500.
This time of year, it’s probably more.
Winter brings vultures from Pennsylvania and New England, West Virginia, from as far as the upper Midwest.
The sky between Mary Baldwin University and the Staunton Public Library was filled with hundreds of vultures “kettling,” or circling or soaring together, on Monday, Dec. 17th. Often when vultures kettle it is a pre-migration activity. But in Staunton it’s more of an announcement of the arrival of more birds who’ll spend the winter months here.
A few days later, well over a hundred vultures could be seen roosting together on a string of walnut trees on Fillmore Street just past Stuart Hall School. A quarter of a mile up the street, as Fillmore curves around the hill that follows the path of Lewis Creek, another four dozen vultures roosted on several large white pines, visible from the public library and Central Avenue.
Their choice of perch is not random. Each spot provides a time-tested advantage to them. You can often spot these places even in the absence of vultures. A stand of a dozen tall pines just off Lewis Street shows dozens of branches where the needles have been stripped off by perching vultures. The surrounding branches help keep roosting vultures warm at night. In the morning, they provide a high launch pad into the warming air.
“Some of these roosts are very old and they are used traditionally,” says Scott C. Baris, the state director of USDA Wildlife Services in Moseley. Unlike the nesting areas of many territorial birds, these roosts are not defended or fought over by vultures.
According to Katie Fallon, author of the 2017 book “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird,” there are three characteristics of an optimal vulture roost: “a safe, convenient spot to perch, a good wind, and an abundance of food.”
Staunton’s many hilly yards, replete with pines and tall walnuts and oaks, provide the safe perch and wind.
The highways and local roadways provide the food. And the heat from the city and from the interstate provide a lift for the birds. “The turkey vultures don’t like to flap if they can help it,” Fallon says during a recent phone interview. “They want to conserve their energy as much as possible. They eat dead things so they really can’t create the next meal, so they have to conserve energy.
“The Shenandoah Valley and the warm air that comes up off Interstate 81 make for an easy place for these vultures to live in the winter,” she says.
“I’ve been to Staunton several times. It’s a really nice town. So the vultures picked a really great spot to hang out,” says Fallon. The author spent several years in Blacksburg teaching. She and her husband run the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in West Virginia.
Fallon lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, which also has a year-round population of vultures. “But we definitely have a lot fewer in the winter,” she adds. “So you might have our turkey vultures, too.”
The hundred vultures you see on Fillmore Street on one day may not be the same hundred you see there a week from now. Vultures typically may use a series of roosts to check out the food supply along the chain of roosts. Since they are not hunters, they don’t scope out and defend a specific territory. They don’t raise their young in these roost areas, either.
“The roosts do turn over and you may not have exactly the same birds there from day to day,” says the USDA’s Baris. “That also suggests there may be more in the area than you realize.” Think of vulture roosts as overnight stops along a Shenandoah Valley Carrion Trail. Kind of like a beer or wine trail — both types of ‘trails’ rely on a string of roads nearby — but the vultures are stopping by the side of the road to devour dead animals while their human counterparts drive by in search of the next brewery or vineyard.
It’s highly likely the traffic along the popular beer and wine trails help feed the vultures and reinforce the roosts.
One wrinkle of this way of roosting is that if you live near one of these roosts and spend time and money legally ridding your property of dozens of birds — by using noise, light, even ‘vulture effigies’ to make the birds leave — it simply puts a “VACANCY” sign up for the next batch of carrion birds cycling through the area’s many such roosts.
The variety of land surfaces — forest to buildings, hills to clearings — create what are called obstruction currents, which also help the birds lift off for their flights in search of food.
When you consider the landscape of Staunton, there’s a lot for the vulture to like.
“The small city also acts as a kind of ‘heat island,'” according to Fallon, “warmer than the countryside surrounding it. So the vulture traveling in the valley around Staunton will find good wind, a good source of food, and then upon encountering the warmth, will think to itself, ‘Oh, here’s this little warm area! I’m going to go land on it!'”
Like tourists to the valley, the vulture you see one weekend on a tree may not be the same vulture you see on that same branch the next weekend.
But when the winter leaves and its seasonal visitors make their way back to Pennsylvania and western Massachusetts, when the leaves bloom on maples and walnuts covering the downtown, most of the vultures stay, less visible in the greening canopy.
What do we really know about our neighbors?
Some we know well, some not so.
Over time we pick up on their looks, how they walk and talk, when they go to work and when they come home, the behaviors by which we identify them.
What do we know about our avian neighbors, these vultures?
We know they mate for life, though partners often spend the winters apart, maintaining their lifelong migratory pattern. Their nesting ground is usually close to a favorite roost, and both parents take turns sitting on the mating couple’s two eggs.
These nesting places can be practically anywhere, including the rafters of barns, abandoned cars, caves, fallen tree trunks or burrows, according to Fallon’s book. After hatching, the fledglings take about twelve weeks before they check out the world around them on their own two wings.
The nests are sometimes visited by other adult birds, though research has not determined whether this is another indication of the casual social nature of the birds or whether vultures take part in a kind of communal parenting or just keep the parents company.
We know the acids in a vulture’s stomach is strong enough to destroy not only the bacteria in an animal’s carcass but even its DNA.
The vulture doubles down on this strength by urinating and defecating on its own legs. This rather disgusting habit has its purpose. The vulture’s feet and legs become veritably germ-proof, protecting it as it wades onto, and sometimes into, a dead animal to feed.
While other scavengers carry rabies and other diseases, which can be transmitted to humans through a bite, rabies can’t survive in a vulture’s stomach. And a vulture won’t bite, even when threatened up close.
What a vulture will do is throw up on you.
While the high acid content of a vulture’s puke and pee may be enough to cause damage to a house’s roof or a car, it wouldn’t immediately burn you or harm you if you did happen to be unfortunate enough (and close enough) to encounter either.
Fallon says, “If you think about it, I mean, lots of any animals peeing on the same thing will cause damage. This is going to sound gross but I work in a rehab with injured birds, and I’ve had vultures pee on my hands, and it’s not, you know, deadly. It doesn’t burn or anything.”
What will cause damage from vultures to your neighborhood is more likely to be boredom.
If vultures choose to roost on a roof or car instead of a tree, they may scratch surfaces or aimlessly pick at things like roof tiles, gutters and car bumpers.
Vultures at the Fillmore Roost appear to prefer high tree branches over house roofs or cars, though parking under one of the trees that hang over Fillmore Street is not advised.
After all, no neighbor’s perfect.
Two species of vulture have taken up permanent residence in Staunton.
The turkey vulture, called by the Cherokee Nation the “peace eagle,” makes up the silent majority of the population. Silent because the turkey vulture does not have the vocal organs to sing like a bird. The “sound” of a turkey vulture is the crisp other-worldly sound of the brief flapping of massive wings when they first take off for flight. Other than an occasional hiss if another vulture gets too close to them while roosting, vultures are silent.
Turkey vultures can stand up to 3 feet high and have a huge six-foot wingspan. In flight they form a shallow “v” or dihedral shape and tend to hold that shape even as they tilt precariously in wind gusts.
The turkey vulture has a red featherless head that seems small for its body. But if you’ve ever seen any size bird missing its head-feathers (cardinals suffering from mites can sometimes appear to have tiny blue heads as a result of losing their top feathers) you know a bird’s head appears smaller without its normal headwear.
The black vulture is a slightly smaller bird reaching heights of nearly two and a half feet, has a smaller, square tail, shorter and more compact wingspan, and the bird’s head appears dark gray or black. The black vulture is also a relatively silent bird. They may hiss or grunt in a way that people mistake for dogs barking.
While immature turkey vultures also have black heads for a short period of time, the best way to tell the difference is to see them in flight.
Though they roost and fly together, the turkey vulture’s wings appear to have a silver lining across the entire length of their wings along the flight feathers (at the bottom of the wing).
The white on the wings of a black vulture is contained to the outer edges. From below they appear to have white dots at the end of their shorter black wings, vaguely reminiscent of the First World War’s famous Sopwith Camel, the fighter plane known for scoring more aerial victories than any Allied plane — and for being Snoopy’s fighter plane of choice in the Peanuts comic strip.
Black vultures don’t soar as well as turkey vultures and are also not as migratory, according to Fallon. They are more agile on the ground than turkey vultures but less so in the air.
Both birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and unlike hawks and eagles these vulture species are not predatory. They eat dead things, and by eating dead things they have come to be known as “nature’s clean-up crew,” according to Amanda Nicholson of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
“Vultures are great for our community — they are an important part of the ecosystem,” Nicholson says.
Scavengers like vultures “play an important role in the cycle of life. Without scavengers, deceased animals would take quite a long time to decompose on their own.”
Vultures have been accused of attacking baby farm animals and carrying away small pets, but these scenarios are unlikely and in most cases impossible.
While neither vulture species are predators, black vultures will feed on a dying animal if it is so disabled that it cannot move. If an injured animal can move it’s not likely that a vulture will come anywhere near it.
Both vultures have feet that are more like oversized chicken feet. They cannot grasp something and fly away with it. Nor can they use their talons for digging into prey to kill it, like hawks do. Turkey vultures will stand on a carcass while eating, while black vultures typically do not use their feet at all in feeding. Black vultures may appear more light on their feet on the ground, sometimes hopping like crows.
Despite being protected species, vultures are regular casualties of human behavior.
“We typically see about 30-40 vulture patients a year at our hospital, both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures,” says Nicholson. “Like many of our patients, most come in due to human interaction of some sort — either intentional or by accident. In looking at our records, most vultures come in due to lead poisoning, collisions with vehicles, and/or with gunshot injuries.”
Lead poisoning is a particularly vexing issue. The lead is from bullets but more often than not vultures receive the lead poisoning by feasting on animals left behind by hunters, not by being shot by vengeful farmers or landowners trying to chase them away.
Lead bullets can fragment on their way through an animal’s body, even when an exit hole makes it seem the bullet has passed through the animal. The fragments, often totaling a third of the bullet’s original mass, when consumed can be a grave danger to vultures, eagles, hawks and other birds.
Some states, including California, have made lead bullets illegal for hunting. But many in Virginia, including those who want to protect eagles and other birds, think the solution to the problem does not have to be that extreme.
Proper disposal of animal parts that may contain the fragmented lead would go a long way to protecting scavengers from lead poisoning so they can continue to do their job without interfering with the hunting industry, which has been diminishing in the state.
Vultures may be a reminder to us of things that make us uncomfortable. A reminder that we all will die at one point. A reminder that our success in any given area may bring with it death for other creatures, whether it’s from our commute to work or our leisure activities.
And dead things don’t just go away once they’re dead. Vultures take care of that, preventing germs from spreading through other animals and to humans.
“So, you know,” Fallon says, “we kind of created this really perfect world for vultures to thrive.”
As long as we’re here, they’ll be here. And if down the line we suffer a catastrophe of our own civilization’s making, they just may be here to clean up after that, too.