WOONSOCKET — A few years ago, when Robert Bouchard first noticed the bulky birds landing in the boughs of his pine trees or perched on the cupola of his North End carriage house, he wasn't particularly alarmed.
With their featherless red heads and impressive wingspans, the turkey vultures were a wildlife oddball, something he'd never seen before around here. There were only a few of them, and they never stuck around long enough to become any sort of nuisance.
“When it was just a few, it was interesting,” says Bouchard. “They're enormous. Huge. They'd be circling around the better part of the day, so nobody really thought much of it.”
That was then.
What started out as a handful of avian infiltrators has grown into a massive venue, or flock, with a penchant for roosting in the trees and on the rooftops of some of the finest homes in the city. Wherever they roost, the leave the white, cakey residue of their feces, causing homeowners like Bouchard and others to be concerned about property damage and disease.
“I think my house is where it started,” says Lisa Pattison, who lives in a storybook 1895 Victorian at 69 Winter Court, next door to the Bouchards. “They've been coming here for the past five or six years. Every winter the number grows and grows and really this year is the first they seem to have branched out across the whole North End.”
“We really want them gone,” says Pattison. “I came out of the house one morning this fall and I stopped counting at 45. I know everybody hates them. I actually have neighbors who come out and try to scare them away with air horns.”
On any given day, particularly when the winter air is clear and crisp, a passerby on Winter Street, near Cold Spring Park, can look up and see the blackish-brown beasts huddled on rooftops at dawn. Unusually graceful when they soar high in the air, they're often mistaken for crows or hawks. At rest, the only crows they might look like would be mutants on steroids — not one of Mother Nature's most endearing creations.
With pinkish, angular heads sunken between haunched-up, tucked-in wings to conserve body heat, they can be a jarring sight. Often, several will straddle the rim of a chimney with their chicken-like claws, soaking up the warmth. It's not unusual to see a single bird perched on the spearpoint tip of the architectural spire on Pattison's house, an ominously gothic image befitting a scene from a vintage creature flick. Think “Frankenstein” or Alfred Hitchcock's classic, “The Birds.”
Postman Chris Stegnick, who delivers mail in the North End, says, “It's a ridiculous amount of 'em. I seen 50 to 70 of 'em one day. Another time I seen 'em circling overhead – I couldn't even count how many there were.”
The Bouchards and the Pattisons both said they worry that what happened to a family in Hopkinton a few years back might happen to them, too. Unable to get rid of a stalwart population of vultures roosting on their property, a family in that town was literally impoverished by the invasion. The birds contaminated their drinking water and soil with bacteria, making it impossible for them to sell their home. The family had faced a plethora of financial problems, but the birds were the last nail in their coffin, and the bank eventually foreclosed on their property.
“I think this is the first year we've really started looking into what we can do to deter them, because the numbers are just outrageous,” says Pattison.
TURKEY VULTURES aren't just new to the North End – they're a relative newcomer to all New England, first showing up in the 1950s, says Julianne Collier, a lecturer with Wingmasters, an educational foundation based in Leverett, Mass. Their smaller and more aggressive ornithological cousin – the black vulture – is an even more recent arrival, appearing for the first time in this region in the late 1990s.
It is a rather widespread misconception that turkey vultures, like hawks and eagles, are birds or prey, says Collier. While black vultures are known to hunt and kill animals for food, turkey vultures never eat anything that's still alive. They're scavengers, noshing exclusively on the flesh of animals that are already dead – often roadkill.
Collier said the expansion of highway systems has created a ribbon of roadkill vultures have followed from their traditional habitats in the southern and western states all the way to New England.
“They are definitely on the rise and have been for decades,” says Collier. “The main reason is the highways. The other reason is climate change. The winters aren't nearly as severe as they used to be.”
But why the North End?
Deputy Animal Control Officer Glen Thuot says the answer shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone: It's Allied Waste.
The trash-hauling giant runs a solid waste transfer station perhaps two tenths of a mile from Winter Street, on a sliver of North Smithfield real estate abutting the Blackstone River, sandwiched between Blackstone, Mass., and Woonsocket. It's one of some two dozen solid waste transfer stations Allied Waste operates in the state, and it's used to temporarily store household trash generated by area communities before it is transported to waste-to-energy facilities and landfills miles away.
Employees at the transfer station didn't want to talk about turkey vultures, steering questions up the chain of command. But one worker shrugged his shoulders and volunteered, “We don't have rats.”
Unlike most birds, which can't smell anything at all, turkey vultures have an unusually keen sense of smell, says Bill Lynch, a wildlife biologist who volunteers for the Turkey Vulture Society, an organization that monitors the activity of the birds all over North and South America. One of the aromas they find most alluring is something called mercaptan, a gas given off by the decay of organic matter.
It's reasonable to assume the vultures were drawn to the North End because of its proximity to the transfer station, offering a steady supply of mercaptan, says Lynch.
Oddly, at Central Landfill in Johnston, a veritable Everest of man-made filth, turkey vultures are a comparatively rare sight, says Michael O'Connell, the executive director. Seagulls, they've got plenty. But turkey vultures?
“Hardly any at all,” says O'Connell.
But Bouchard, whose had ample opportunity to study their behavior, thinks Winter Street is the perfect niche for these gliding goliaths of the ecosystem: The heavy birds are notoriously bad at airlifting themselves from the ground. They get better results leaping off a high perch.
The highest point in the neighborhood, Winter Street gives them an ideal launch pad – all the better with its lofty rooftops. Throw in a fly-thru food supply and you've got a sweet spot for some hungry scavengers.
Typically, the wingspan of a turkey vulture can reach up to six feet and mature birds can weigh up to six pounds. They are said to be among the most proficient gliders in the avian world, riding rising currents of warming air known as thermals thousands of feet into the atmosphere. Birders say they can stay aloft for hours at a time with nary a flap of their wings.
As North End residents attest, Lynch says turkey vultures generally disperse from roosting sites in the spring to rear their young. Locals might find a few eggs in old barns, tree stumps and other close-to-the-ground sites nearby, but typically the birds spread out as the creatures become increasingly territorial during mating rites. Their eggs are about the size of a goose's and each mating pair can rear two young per season.
But Lynch says the North End's vulture population won't ever up and leave on its own. Unless residents take some proactive measures to frighten them off, the venue will continue to grow until it's so big members no longer feel comfortable. Then some will move on, but not all.
“It'll increase to a point – we don't know what that point is, but they do have a spatial issue,” he says. “They don't like to be too close to each other.”
A problem for the aggrieved host of the turkey vulture is that the birds are protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Although its possible to get a permit to kill the birds if they're shown to be a health hazard, federal law prohibits anyone from killing or even harassing the birds. Offenses are punishable by fines up to $15,000.
Lynch recommends using rooftop sprinklers, spikes, or string lines to make roosting spots inhospitable. Noisemakers like air horns also work, but the effort has to be consistent and timed just right, before the birds settle in at dusk.
ANYONE WHO'S ever watched an old Western with images of vultures soaring above some parched landscape knows they're bad news: Either they're keeping some ghoulish vigil for a wounded cowpoke, or they're jealously eyeballing the carcass of an unfortunate longhorn. Their breed is practically synonymous with death.
In addition to eating carrion, they have a few other habits even a defender of turkey vultures like Lynch will admit are, in fact, quite nasty. They urinate and defecate on their own legs in the summertime to keep cool and kill bacteria. The most melodious vocalization they're capable of is something akin to a hiss or a grunt. But maybe their most repulsive habit is that thing they do when they feel threatened, which is, puke up whatever's in the upper part of their digestive tract, known as a “crop.”
“It's like mashed up roast beef that's been sitting under a heat lamp too long,” he says. “It smells like heck, too.”
But Lynch says turkey vultures are a largely maligned creature who are victims of a kind of animal bigotry. He prefers to think of them as something like nature's cleaning crew. Their feather-free heads are an evolutionary adaptation to prevent the buildup of bacteria associated with shoving their beaks into the carcasses of dead animals. Often, they're seen sunbathing, their wings spread out like Dracula's cape, to help kill the bacteria on their feathers.
Their digestive juices are so strong that whatever goes in the beak end usually comes out the other pretty sanitized, says Lynch.
“They could eat a rabbit with rabies and the virus is rendered inert by their digestive system,” he says with a detectable hint of admiration.
That's good news for families with children or pets whose homes have become unwanted roosting sites, says Lynch. The residue of their feces is far less harmful than most people fear, though it can become a nuisance.
Like any other type of bird droppings, Lynch says those of turkey vultures can be highly corrosive to car paint and rooftops and should be washed off regularly. He says turkey vultures also have a mysterious affinity for vinyl and have been known to cause serious damage to cable insulators and rubberized roofs with the pecking of their powerful beaks.