WOONSOCKET — Robert Bouchard can still crack a joke about how his neighborhood is starting to remind him of the Hitchcock classic, “The Birds,” but don’t be fooled: He’s losing his sense of humor about the North End’s population of gloomy-looking vultures.
It’s growing, says Bouchard.
And so are his concerns about avian-borne disease and property values.
“The growth has been exponential,” says Bouchard. “It’s gotten to the point where you don’t even see a migratory dropoff of the population in the summertime anymore.”
Just a year ago, the population of roosting vultures was concentrated on the roof of Bouchard’s two-story, white colonial on Winter Court, that of a picturesque, Queen Anne Victorian next door, and in a single tree adjacent to both properties.
Now it’s not uncommon to see the giant, goulish-looking birds clustered in several trees, and perched on rooftops all along Winter Street, from Harris Avenue to Prospect Street.
State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt, of Prospect Street, also believes there are more vultures than ever in the neighborhood.
“Not a day goes by where I don’t see them,” she says.
Though she’s not particularly bothered by the birds, she says there may be some homeowners who are and will try to steer them toward help if they contact her. “There’s no question about it they can be intimidating,” she says. “I always have a concern about feces and what can be transmitted through feces, the same way I would have about Canadian geese and what they do on a ballfield where my children play.”
With wingspans that can reach six feet, vultures are known as some of the most graceful gliders in the avian world. Typically, they’ll catch rising, warm currents of air known as thermals and ride them thousands of feet – miles even – into the air, staying aloft for hours at a time without even flapping their wings.
Up close, the picture’s not so pretty. With featherless pink heads and scrawny, chicken-like feet, they look like freak crows on steroids. They can reach six to eight pounds and have personal hygiene habits akin to those of devil-possessed Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”
When threatened, they’ll puke up the toxic, foul-smelling contents of their gullets. In the summertime, they urinate on their own legs to cool themselves and kill the bacteria they are exposed to as a result of their ravenous appetite for festering roadkill.
Often, especially on cold days, they can be seen perched on the chimneys of some of the finest architectural specimens in the posh North End, striking what is known as the “heraldic” pose, wings outstretched, looking liked caped Draculas ready to pounce. Experts say they stretch their wings this way not just to soak up the heat, but as another technique for cleaning up after dinner.
In the North End, there are actually two species of vultures that tool around in the same flock, or venue, as it is more accurately called. In addition to the pink-headed birds, also known as turkey vultures because of their resemblance to the native New Englanders, the local vultures also include black vultures. Slightly smaller than turkey vultures, with featherless, black heads instead of pink, the two species differ in a couple of notable ways.
For one, turkey vultures are one of the only birds known to have a sense of smell, and a keen one at that. This unique avian ability is what allows them to track down the aroma of rotting flesh, which is the only kind of flesh they’ll eat. Contrary to popular belief, they won’t hunt and kill a live animal, like a hawk or other birds or prey.
Not so the black vulture. Though they have more in common, genetically speaking, with storks than raptors, black vultures will hunt and eat small animals, like squirrels and rodents. But they use their eyesight to catch them. Unlike turkey vultures, black vultures have no sense of smell, and they basically tag along with their pink-headed cousins because of their highly specialized abilities in finding food in a way that’s easier than hunting for it.
As BALDELLI-HUNT suggests, one of Bouchard’s main worries about vultures is the potential for disease from the feces the animals leave behind and the damage it’s doing to his property. The latter is plainly visible in the form of a crusty, caked-up layer of dried feces that collects on his rooftop and chimney. The birds also poop on his cars, trees and automobiles and yard.
“You track it in the house,” he says.
It can take months after the seasonal migration thins the flock in the spring for rain to wash the white coating off the roof of his house, and the feces are so caustic that if he doesn’t wash them off his automobiles promptly the finish will be permanently scarred.
“The droppings are a health concern and an environmental issue, and it’s getting all over the automobiles,” he says. “If you don’t catch it in time it’s going to ruin your paint.”
The official line of the Turkey Vulture Society, a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to destigmatizing a widespread cultural symbol of death, is that the feces of vultures are not a health threat to humans. Because of the creatures’ feeding habits the birds have developed a high-efficiency digestive system that’s uniquely adapted toward filtering out viruses and bacteria.
“Because of the nature of their digestive system, vulture poop is actually a sanitizer,” says the non-profit, educational organization on its Web site. “Amazing! Their stomachs contain digestive acids that kill virtually all bacteria and viruses, and there is even evidence for the claim that they can consume meat infected with anthrax, destroying the virus in their digestive system.”
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says otherwise. In one of the most comprehensive assessments the agency ever compiled for a vulture infestation, the agency told the state of Florida in 2005 that the buildup of fecal matter at roosting sites can promote conditions favorable to the spread of histoplasmosis and other respiratory ailments.
Though vultures, even black ones, are not often associated with attacks on small cats or dogs, their vomit can contain botulism bacteria, which can be deadly to pets if they eat the regurgitated materials.
Moreover, the USDA concluded, “Many people consider vultures a nuisance because of the white-wash effect their droppings leave on trees at roost sites, ammonia odor emanating from roost sites, and a general feeling of doom when vultures congregate around homes.”
The most ominous news for homeowners who want to get rid of vultures may be this: They’re protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act, so it’s illegal to kill them. Doing so can carry a fine of $15,000.
Bouchard says he’s made some calls to the state Department of Environmental Management and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine’s office in search of help, but he’s not looking in the right place. Local officials, including Baldelli, say DEM does not have the power to help him.
Cartherine Sparks, DEM’s chief of forestry, however, says the even though vultures are protected, the federal government has established a process to seek a waiver from the Migratory Bird Act.
It’s called a depredation permit, according to Peggy Labonte of the U.S. Division of Fish and Wildlife’s regional office in Hadley, Mass.
“It’s becoming more and more common,” says Labonte. “Vultures are becoming more and more prolific. They’re reproducing more.”
Until the 1950s, vultures were considered a bird common mainly to the southern and western parts of the country, but Labonte says most experts believe the expansion of their domain has corresponded with the growth of the interstate highway system and its interminal bounty of roadkill. Bouchard and other neighbors believe the birds have made Woonsocket a permanent waystation in the North End because of the proximity of another food source, a solid waste transfer station a few hundred yards away, operated by Allied Waste.
Labonte says it’s not suprising that the North End venue has continued to grow over the years. And unless something is done to control it, she said, it will continue to do so.
“The best they can ever hope for is to control it, but they’ll never get rid of it completely,” she said. “It’s controlled chaos, is what it is.”
Labonte says that in order to get a depredation permit, a homeowner must first apply to the USDA. The agency will dispatch an inspector to evaluate the situation. If the USDA determines that the birds are a sufficient nuisance, her agency will issue the permit and provide guidance on how the birds may be killed.
In the past, she said, numerous homeowners, school districts, public utilities, private businesses, cattle owners and others aggrieved by vultures have received permits in her jurisdiction area, which includes 15 states from Virginia to the Canadian border. Vultures have been known to pluck out the eyes of infant calves as they’re being born in some parts of her district.
“It’s gross,” she says.
One technique that worked with some success to eradicate vultures in the small town of Middleburg, Va. in 2008 was to kill some birds and hang them “in effigy” from roosting zones. The specter of their own kind dangling dead from their usual comfort zones proved to be an effective deterrent and has worked in other problem spots, too, said Labonte.
Anyone interested in details about applying for a permit may call Labonte at 413-253-8576 or contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .