Where men dig deep in earth, vultures find heaven in skies

Winds, wildlife draw scavengers to quarry

April 03, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

There's something unsettling about driving into the depths of the mini-Grand Canyon that is Lehigh Portland Cement Co.'s quarry in Union Bridge. It's not so much the trapped feeling from being in a 300-foot-deep pit or the 50-ton trucks rolling by -- it's the dozens and dozens of vultures circling overhead.

They come here to play.

The vultures are drawn to this site near the Carroll-Frederick border by the wind currents in the 64-acre quarry. As they soar above the pit, they are pushed upward, as if they were flying over a huge vent.

"It gives you sort of an eerie feeling. You wonder what's happening to make them gather at this area and stay around," said foreman Walt Reaver, who has worked in the quarry for 18 years. "I guess we enjoy watching them, but we don't get too close because they have a bad odor."

A wise decision. Get too near a vulture and, as its defense mechanism kicks in, you might end up wearing what it had for breakfast even if you're standing four feet away. The odor the workers have noticed comes from the way the birds keep cool, which involves relieving themselves on their legs, said Marci

Nacke, a raptor-care specialist at the Baltimore Zoo.

"They are not cute, cuddly birds," she said. "But they are incredibly adapted."

Across the road from Lehigh's quarry, from which trucks haul limestone that is to be ground into cement, is another quarry, now filled with water, that serves as a pond. Nacke said vultures are often drawn to such areas because injured animals -- on the brink of becoming carrion or vulture food -- often head toward water.

Put the two quarries together, she said, and it's vulture heaven.

Bad reputation

"At one time, vultures were seen as really bad guys. People thought they symbolized death, and they had a bad reputation through history," Nacke said. "Now we see them as nature's recyclers. When something dies, instead of just rotting, the vultures recycle and clean things up. You'd be surprised how clean they are for all they go through. They're meticulous about their feathers."

The 1,200-acre Lehigh site, which includes the quarries, a plant and surrounding land, has become a veritable nature center. It's home to foxes, pheasants, geese, squirrels, rabbits and deer, which casually walk past workers without fear.

"I guess that's the thing I'll miss most when I retire, not seeing all the wildlife," Reaver said.

He said the vultures started gathering 10 or 12 years ago. Though still a strong presence, their numbers have decreased.

"We used to come in in the morning, and we would have them sitting on the equipment back here," he said. "We would count 75 or 80 on one piece of equipment."

The birds don't cause problems, he said, other than picking at the rubber seals of truck windows, but sometimes the workers wonder.

"Suppose someone were to fall down out here and hit their head. Would the vultures bother them?" Reaver said. "It runs through your mind, but we've never had an incident."

Black vultures and turkey vultures, which have red heads, come to the Lehigh quarry. The black birds have no sense of smell and often follow turkey vultures in search of food. Turkey vultures go after only dead animals; the black ones can be more aggressive.

"Where there is a high rat population, they will put their head into a rat mound and pull one out with their mouth and thump it until it dies," Nacke said.

Animals attacked

Black vultures have also been known to attack young farm animals, such as calves and baby pigs, said Les Terry, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Program.

"Vultures will not attack people, although it is an awesome-looking bird. But as far as human safety, there are no problems," he said. "They will take the shingles off houses and peck at the wiper blades on cars, and walking on the cars can scratch the paint job. No one knows why they do it -- boredom or something to do."

It is illegal to shoot a vulture, although Terry said that if a farmer can prove a loss of farm animals to the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might grant a permit to kill a certain number.

Vultures weigh 4 or 5 pounds, have wingspans of up to 72 inches, live 25 to 30 years in the wild and mate for life. A partner that dies or disappears is replaced.

Although they are often referred to as raptors, or birds of prey, vultures don't have talons and are more closely related to storks.

Few people have seen the dozens of vultures playing at the quarry. The area is not open to the public -- the heavy machinery can be dangerous -- and plant manager David H. Roush said only one or two people have asked him about the birds.

"It's very infrequent that people take note," he said. "They're just kind of there."

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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