Vultures coming to roost Pests: Swarms of the big black birds have made themselves at home in a Kent County park, foraging through garbage and generally causing a peck of trouble.

August 02, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BETTERTON -- Turners Creek is a long way from San Juan Capistrano, and the birds that have begun pecking on pickup trucks, foraging through garbage cans and roosting in the park pavilion near the Sassafras River will never be mistaken for swallows.

Like uninvited guests crashing a family picnic, swarms of black vultures have taken up residence in the park in northern Kent County. Casting a pall over the waterfront site, the scavengers have ignored every effort to scare them off, including timed explosive blasts and loud whistles.

Folks in Hinckley, Ohio, have built a 40-year tradition of welcoming the birds each spring, but frustrated Kent officials might install a solar-powered device that is supposed to repel the birds with ultrahigh-frequency noise.

The UHF sound waves, harmless but unpleasant to animals and nearly inaudible to humans, apparently have been effective in driving out a variety of pests, says Carter G. Stanton, the county public works director.

And, because the price is less than $1,000, Stanton is awaiting approval only from the Kent County commissioners before ordering the equipment.

Just in case, the county has acquired a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shoot the birds. But, leery of protests from animal-rights groups and nearby residents, Stanton says gunfire is a last resort.

"I'm no expert on birds but they don't seem interested in leaving on their own," Stanton says. "You can get really close, and they just sit there and defy you."

Early birds

Stanton says the birds began gathering about two years ago at (( the landing, which is adjacent to the state-owned 1,000-acre Sassafras River Natural Resources Management Area. The complaints came right away and continued as more of the black vultures appeared.

"If we could afford to hire somebody to stay out there and harass them all day, every day, maybe they'd leave," said Jef Troester, the county's director of parks and recreation. "Turkey vultures will fly off if you yell at them, but the black ones will just sit there and stare you down."

A hilltop pavilion next to the public landing has proved as popular with the birds as with the people who use the facility for family reunions, church picnics and other functions. With two dozen picnic tables and large brick fireplaces at either end, the covered open-air building is booked every summer weekend.

The black vultures "really seem to like roosting in the rafters of the pavilion," says Stanton. "They make a terrible mess on the picnic tables, and they'll go after any kind of food left in the trash cans."

A taste for rubber

With 100 or more of the birds lurking on pilings, atop an old granary building or in the trees as they set off for pre-dawn crabbing or trolling for catfish, the watermen who dock workboats at the public landing aren't fazed by the creepy atmosphere. But they worry about their pickup trucks in the parking lot.

It seems the birds have a taste for rubber, particularly for wiper blades and the thin strips that seal windshields.

Les Terry, state director of wildlife management for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has an unconventional explanation for the odd culinary choice -- boredom. "I would think it must be that. I certainly don't see any food value in windshield wipers," Terry says. "We hear complaints from people who say that vultures will get on boats and rip up seat cushions and that sort of thing."

Terry says aggressive behavior is more likely from the black vultures, relative newcomers that began expanding their range from the South into Maryland 20 to 30 years ago, sharing territory with the familiar redheaded turkey vultures, as they do at Turners Creek.

"They are slightly smaller than turkey vultures, but they prefer larger prey, and they have been known to kill food like newborn calves or sheep," Terry explains. "It could be the increased numbers of deer in Maryland and the increase in road kill that has brought them."

Kent officials assume that scraps of fish, bait and crabs left by watermen draw the beady-eyed birds to Turners Creek.

Then again, the county has more than a dozen other public landings with boat ramps and bulkheads -- all used by commercial fishermen but not by black vultures.

A sound solution?

Whatever brought the birds, the method for removing them might be found at the Mid-Shore Landfill near Easton. Officials of the Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-public agency that operates the dump for four nearby counties -- Kent, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Caroline -- installed an ultrasonic sound system a few weeks ago.

Manufactured by a Chicago company called Bird-X, the system produces high-frequency noise from six speakers mounted around the site and is designed to irritate vultures in a 10-acre area.

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