Saturday, February 18, 2012

As vulture flock grows, Midwegians worry about health and safety; council to discuss options

Vultures preparing to roost soar above Midway Christian Church.
Story and photos by Morgan Rhodes
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

On a walk down East Bruen Street in Midway, someone might witness a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” The trees behind Midway Christian Church are filled with roosting vultures, seemingly waiting for a nice carcass to scavenge.

These vultures aren’t just behind the church, where they have returned in greater numbers than in 2010. Over the last couple of months, vultures have spread to two other locations in Midway: on Brand Street and the corner of Bruen and Turner Street.

UPDATE, Feb. 22: The church has applied for a federal permit, its pastor said after Monday night's council meeting.

The Midway City Council will discuss the vultures at its meeting Monday night. Council Member Sharon Turner is worried about the dangers the birds may pose. “People are mainly concerned about the health issues,” Turner said in an email, “and some are also concerned about their small pets that are outside.”

Experts downplay the health issues from the birds’ smelly droppings, but do say the vultures are the type that can kill prey, not just scavenge carrion.
Adam Probst, the University of Kentucky’s cooperative extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Woodford County, said in an email that Kentucky is home to two types of vultures: the turkey vulture and the invasive, black headed vulture.

“The native turkey vulture has been a part of the natural ecology of Kentucky for many years,” Probst wrote. “However, the black headed vulture is expanding its territory north from Mexico and the Gulf Shore states. It is a more aggressive bird that may actually kill its prey rather than exclusively feeding on dead/decaying carcasses like the turkey vulture has done.”

While Probst said there are no immediate hazards to humans, black vultures have a more aggressive nature, making pets and children vulnerable. He said Midway has options to deal with the problem and hopes to find a solution with the council.

Probst said there is no particular reason vultures are roosting in Midway. Abandoned buildings are an attraction for nesting sites, he said. “Once they become a little more acclimated to people, they may move out into other areas around town that may have a little more traffic such as parks or near churches that don’t have daily activity.”

The pastor of Midway Christian Church, the Rev. Heather McColl, said she first noticed the vultures around Halloween in 2010. “As time passed,” she said, “they became more prolific. … This year, it seems the numbers have grown. I would guess there are 50 or more on a given night.”

McColl said the church’s concerns are for the health of the community: “Midway Christian Church is trying to be proactive.” Last year, the Versailles Police Department was called on to fire blanks in the area to scare off the vultures, but the tactic didn’t work.

Dan Roller, a city council member and member of the church, also made an effigy to scare the vultures away, McColl said. This tactic also failed.

Tire on church playground shows bird droppings.
While no one has been harmed, the vultures have caused damage to the community playground behind the church. “People used to come by and use the playground,” McColl said. “Because of the droppings, it is a health hazard.”

The smell and droppings of vultures in roosting areas are unpleasant, but pose no real harmful effects, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says on its website. Because vultures have a unique digestive system, all bacteria are destroyed before being emitted back into the environment. According to the site, “Most view the vulture as one of nature’s most efficient, natural recyclers.” For more, click here.

Even so, McColl said the droppings have rendered the playground unusable by the community.

In an effort to solve the problem, McColl contacted Keith Stucker, district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. McColl said Stucker confirmed the situation at the church  is no longer a temporary and minor problem, so it can be addressed with more than harassment of the birds.

Stucker suggested that McColl apply for a permit from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to give the church permission to kill the vultures, the only surefire way to be rid of them, McColl said.

A permit is required to kill black vultures because they are a federally protected species. Probst said the first line of defense is scare tactics, but since the situation has progressed to a point where the birds would simply move to another location in Midway, “I’ll be discussing at the city council meeting some options that the city can take including additional scare tactics, and the permit process for taking and removing these birds.”

Since scare tactics have already been used, Probst said he believes taking and removing the birds is the best option.  Stucker suggested to McColl that killing the birds after receiving an approved permit is the best option at this point. Because the vultures have spread and multiplied, Stucker told McColl, removal is the only available option to get rid of the problem this season. Also, according to the Alabama website, roosting vultures habitually return to previous sites, making it very likely that the birds would keep roosting in Midway.

McColl said the church will take its cue from the city council. If the city applies for a permit, she said, the church will be a part of that.

“As long as ideal roosting sites are around Midway,” Probst said, “this may need to be addressed again in the future, but it may be several years before it gets to the point that we are at today. The good news is that the city does have some options in dealing with this problem and that hopefully we can create a solution soon.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you guys see the article on in the Herald Leader about vultures in Landsdown? Turkey vultures make Lexington's Lansdowne neighborhood a favorite roost