If 200 ugly vultures decide to roost in a couple of trees right next to your house — for six long months — what do you do?
A. Chop down the darn 50-foot-tall trees the macabre birds return to every winter?
B. Set off firecrackers, bang sneakers together, or ring cowbells nightly?
C. Get a wildlife permit and hang a dead vulture upside down from a nearby tree?
D. Give up and ignore them, and the stench, and puddles of white poop.
Folks who live in Mount Holly, a historic town just south of Trenton, have done all of the above, and more.
But a decade after turkey vultures began invading their neighborhoods, perching on rooftops and trees and hovering ominously above the bustling Burlington County Courthouse, the town is trying something new: embracing the virtues of the ubiquitous birds.
A naturalist recently entertained 50 people who gathered at the Burlington County Lyceum of History and Natural Sciences in town to learn about vultures, their role in the ecosystem and their habits and how Hollywood has earned millions from using them in horror films. The night ended with a rousing sing-a-long that praised the scavengers as nature’s efficient cleanup crew.
In the gift shop, stuffed animals resembling fuzzy baby vultures were for sale. A caretaker with the Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge carried in a live vulture so the audience could see it close-up. Apollo spread his wings and cameras clicked.
It’s true that vultures “have a face only a mother could love,” said Jane Galetto, the lecturer, but she said they play an important role in the ecological system and in society, safely eliminating road-kill that could spread disease and make highways unsafe. Turkey vultures only go after dead animals, but sometimes the more aggressive black vultures join the group, said Galetto, the president of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River.
Tell that to Kay Schuh, who went to the town council in a panic several years ago when nearly 300 vultures swooped into three evergreens close to her Colonial-style home and refused to leave. “I hate them,” she said in a recent interview. Their droppings and regurgitated “fur balls” litter her lawn and leave stains on her backyard shed. A few came near her porch one day to retrieve a picked-clean deer spine her dog discovered in the backyard.
One neighbor, she said, cut down a pair of towering sycamore trees the birds used for their roost each winter after ringing a cowbell each night got old. Another axed the top of his trees to make them less desirable.
The vultures, which typically weigh about six pounds and can have 6-foot-long wingspans, are federally protected and anyone who kills or harasses them may be prosecuted. After Schuh complained, the town paid the $400 permit for Fish and Wildlife biologists to hang a frozen vulture carcass, with wings spread, in a backyard tree to shoo them. It worked, at least that year. A neighbor bought an artificial one from a place that sells movie props, but it was less effective.
“The theory behind it is they’re smart enough to think ‘that’s one of us and something caused it to die, so it’s not a safe place’ to return to,” said Erica Miller, a veterinarian with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, in Newark, Del., who works with injured vultures. “They are very social and one of the most intelligent birds around."
Miller said they flock to areas like Mount Holly, Wenonah, and Lambertville, N.J. and Norristown — where hundreds have been spotted — because those towns are within 10 miles of a wooded area and a lot of speeding vehicles. It’s a combination that creates a feast for vultures. She said Mount Holly’s landfill, and the rodents it attracts, could also attract the vultures. They "might think ‘let’s roost on these nice rooftops where there’s a buffet nearby,’ ” she said.
Miller said vultures, like other wildlife that sometimes come into suburbia in droves, can become a nuisance. She said the Elmwood Zoo recently got rid of them by projecting green laser lights, often seen on homes at Christmas, into the trees.
Christie Dragan, who lives on Broad Street in one of the Victorian homes whose roofs often sprout vultures, says she bangs sneakers together at night to get rid of them. “They’re a mixture of majestic and hideous,” she said. “We have pictures of one bird perched like an eagle, with wings spread. ... It’s spectacular, except for the face," she said. "We’ve enjoyed seeing them, but it’s time for them to move on.”
Dragan said they seem to have multiplied this year. “Oh yes, there’s hundreds,” she said.
No one knows exactly why a town or backyard is selected.
Besides proximity to a landfill, a wildlife preserve, and rural roads, Galetto said there are a few other theories out there.
“Mount Holly has a lot of old homes and places on the roof where heat escapes. They want to keep warm,” she said. Another possibility, she said, is there may be undetected gas leaks. Gas companies add mercaptan to natural gas so a leak can be detected, and it smells like rotten eggs — or something dying or dead. Some scientists think the odor may lure the vultures, she said.
Randi Rothmel, chair of the town’s advisory environmental committee, said vultures are the talk of the town and that’s why she invited Galetto to offer perspective and facts. “This is one of the birds that’s made a big comeback in the area,” she said. The Lyceum agreed to host the vulture event and even decided to make the vulture its mascot.
Wenonah adopted a similar strategy after hundreds of vultures appeared two decades ago in the tiny Gloucester County borough. Initially police tried shooing away the birds with pyrotechnics, but in 2006, the borough began celebrating them with the East Coast Vulture Festival. The event featured food, crafts, and people dressed as vultures who danced to tunes like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” said Richard Dilks, an environmentalist and a founder of the festival.
The annual festival ran seven years, attracting hundreds of people, but ended in 2013 when the birds mysteriously stopped coming. Dilks said the birds are always present in the region, but when they roost, or huddle together in large numbers each winter, people notice.
Dilks said he used to love “watching them soar, floating on thermals and using very little energy." He doesn’t know why the birds left Wenonah, but he has spotted a committee of them — as a group of vultures is called — in a big tree in nearby Woodbury Heights.
Rothmel said Mount Holly is just taking the first steps to raise vulture awareness and doesn’t know if a vulture festival is in its future. “There’s two trends of thought,” she said. “People either love them or hate them.”