Turkey vultures make Lexington's Lansdowne neighborhood a favorite roost

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 18, 2012 

  • Turkey vultures

    Scientific name: Cathartes aura. Their similar-looking but smaller cousin, the black vulture, is Coragyps atratus.

    Other common names: john crow, carrion crow, turkey buzzard

    Is it a buzzard? No. Buzzard is the correct term for several species of hawks in Europe, according to the Turkey Vulture Society. In the United States, "buzzard" is incorrectly used to describe vultures. This probably dates back to the arrival of the first English colonists. There are no vultures in England, so the colonists probably gave the common term "buzzard" to all the soaring birds they saw.

    Appearance: 25 to 32 inches long, with a wingspan about 6 feet. Healthy adult turkey vultures weigh 5 to 6 pounds, according to the Turkey Vulture Society. The turkey vulture's head — like that of its namesake, the wild turkey — is bald and red. Its plumage is primarily dark brown.

    Where you'll find them: They are very common and can be found anywhere between southern Canada and South America.

    What if they're circling? Contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily indicate the presence of a dead animal, according to the Turkey Vulture Society. Circling vultures might be gaining altitude for long flights, searching for food or playing.

    What do you call a bunch of turkey vultures? A group of vultures is called a "venue," according to the Turkey Vulture Society. Vultures circling in the air are a "kettle."

    "Turkey vulture" in pop culture: The term "turkey vulture" appears in the Urban Dictionary under two distinct definitions — the first being a "cougar" past her prime in dating younger men, and the second concerning scavenged kill captured during a video game. An indie record label specializing in metal music calls itself Turkey Vulture Records.

    More facts: Visit Vulturesociety.homestead.com

In the late afternoon, Michael Potter waits for the enormous pests to swoop down.

They do not disappoint.

Wings outstretched, soaring on an air current, the black and red turkey vultures come to roost in the trees of Lexington's Lansdowne neighborhood like a flight of feathered rodents with wingspans a little less than that of Anthony Davis.

Potter said the turkey vultures' aerial onslaught looks "like the Normandy invasion" in the neighborhood near Tates Creek Road in south Lexington.

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Nick Schwendeman, a senior vice president of The Webb Companies, which once had a handful of the vultures hanging around a high balcony at the blue Lexington Financial Center downtown, recalls the critter thusly: "It looked like a B-52 coming at you."

Potter, a Lansdowne resident and University of Kentucky professor of urban horticulture and medical entomology, said he has counted as many as 150 vultures at one time in the neighborhood.

Potter has sought help with the feathered pest from a variety of sources. The trouble is, government dollars from local, state and federal sources are busy elsewhere. Potter got some advice on how to harass the vultures: Loud noises show some promise, but who can mount a fireworks display every afternoon? So Potter receives no substantial help and, every day, the vultures perform their matinee show over Lansdowne.

They have a treaty

Generally, you are legally forbidden from killing the birds, which are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Permits to kill are granted only under extraordinary circumstances. And because turkey vultures tend to look more aggressive than they are, they're not high on the list of urban-wildlife nuisances.

Lansdowne resident Mark Shake, who said hundreds of the turkey vultures roost in the white pines around his property before moving off in the spring and summer, has developed a novel method for dispersing them: He slams the lids on his Herbie garbage bins. When the birds leave, "It sounds like helicopters taking off. It's impressive."

The vultures aren't fond of only Lansdowne. They have traditionally enjoyed the tall spruce and white pine trees on the lawn of the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort. They also sometimes dot the runway at the Madison Airport in Richmond and have to be shooed off, said airport lineman Chris Harover.

Chris Christensen, owner of Lexington's Critter Control and an urban-wildlife specialist, said the vultures like to perch in a high spot because of their flight style, which involves little wing-flapping and relies on rising currents of warm air, or thermals, before the birds glide back down. Hence, they like swoop-worthy places such as the limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River Palisades.

An offensive defense

Pete Markham, an Indiana-based expert in vultures and other pests, said that in his work in Texas, he sees turkey vultures populating trees, neighborhoods and high-rise buildings.

When disturbed, the primary defense for the carrion-eating birds is to vomit bits of undigested offal and bone, giving them the nickname "vomiting vultures."

Markham said the turkey vulture is drawn to urban areas because of traffic, warmth, the availability of small animal carcasses and vegetation — "a giant smorgasbord."

"If you create an environment for them to come and feed on, they're coming," Markham said.

He said turkey vultures are largely passive and prefer their meals already dead, but their smaller avian cousins, black vultures, are more aggressive and sometimes attack living things such as lambs, calves, cows giving birth, or other livestock.

Nonetheless, with the strong stomach acids that help the birds thrive on eating decayed flesh, the turkey vultures' excretions are a smelly nuisance.

"Texas seems to be having a major vulture uprising," Markham said. "But I've gotten several calls from Georgia."

Markham frequently battles the vultures in Texas, where they like to roost on office buildings and oil refineries. He said that vulture deterrents marketed online such as polyethylene wire don't really work, or at least not for long.

That's why he's working on a turkey vulture pheromone to relocate the animals via smell. The process has some unwanted side effects, he said: "I've actually woken up some mornings and had vultures waiting for me."

Loathed and loved

Florida is another big turkey-vulture roosting site. Turkey vultures there have been caught tearing the wiper blades off cars, thinking they were an edible treat, according to the Field Guide to Urban Wildlife. The birds particularly bedevil St. Petersburg, where they hang out from October to March.

But turkey vultures are not universally unpopular. At Reed Bingham State Park in south-central Georgia, thousands of turkey vultures and black vultures show up every April, so the park celebrates "Buzzard Days," offering visitors tips on when to watch the vulture assembly during the morning and at dusk.

Hints of Hitchcock

Driving into Lansdowne about 4 p.m. on a weekday, you see the long, slow circling of the vultures, who are night-blind and like to settle in before the sun goes down.

Diana Deen, whose elderly mother lives in Lansdowne and frequently watches the turkey vultures, said, "There seem to be getting more of them. A dozen, that's not a nuisance."

But recalling the 30 to 40 vultures that clustered in the trees on her mother's street the previous afternoon, she said, "When you get this many, it gets a little bit scary."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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