How a Tiny Southern Town Handles a Turkey Vulture Invasion

In short: they clean up a lot of poop

Good one, turkey vulture! Stop trying to act so scary.     Photo: Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock

Worst of all, the government’s clearly in on it; you can’t even shoot them because the birds are a federally protected species.

Sandy had a fine little life in Shelby, North Carolina. She had a couple of kids and a solid house in which to shelter them and even a lovely little backyard complete with a sandbox and a trampoline.

And then the turkey vultures came.

They’re giant vultures—the size of eagles and with a wingspan that reaches five to six feet—but far more terrifying. Soaring through the sky, they look pretty cool, majestic even, but then they land and what happens next is as disturbing as their gnarled, bald heads.

Sandy and her neighbors have the things roosting on their roofs, crapping on their decks, destroying their sandboxes and trampolines. The birds are screwing up everyone’s garbage and yards. They’re scaring the parents of smaller children and the owners of Chihuahuas. Kids are scared to play out front, and parents are pretty sure they wouldn’t let them even if they wanted to. The birds wreck shingling and tear at caulking, and it sounds entirely possible that they’re trying to rip their way right into your house to come and get you.

Worst of all, the government’s clearly in on it; you can’t even shoot them because the birds are a federally protected species.

It’s straight-up Hitchcockian.

THE INVASION BEGAN THREE years ago. The town of 20,000 near the mountains of Asheville usually gets its fair share of the things—and “things” is really the right word—coming through the area around this time of year, passing through on their migration south. But three years ago they stopped leaving. Of every species of bird that migrates in large packs, turkey vultures are by far the largest.

Kristen Duren, an intern at the Cleveland County Cooperative Extension and a senior at North Carolina State University, has pretty much become the local turkey vulture authority this year. “It’s probably the most unique situation in any educational program that any intern at State has tackled,” says Duren.

Ordinarily, swarms of turkey vultures stop in Shelby for a few months during their migration south. According to Duren, they’ve started staying around because the Shelby winters haven’t been cold enough to keep pushing the birds down to Florida.

“Technically, they have a home range here that lasts several months,” she says, “but when they’re in those large groups, they’re supposed to keep migrating south, but instead they’re just staying.”

After consulting with biologists at the United States Department of Agriculture, Duren’s been doing all she can to keep Shelbyians in the loop about the creatures and how to deal with them. Unfortunately, the truth about turkey vultures is not quite so scary, maybe sort of funny, and most definitely gross.

They’re peaceful creatures who only eat dead things. They’re more dangerous for roadkill than Chihuahas and children. The biggest threat they pose to people is that they are absolutely disgusting. They smell awful. They can spread diseases because of all the dead stuff they eat.

If you try to scare these filthy beasts off by running at them and banging metal pans together or firing guns in the air, all that you’ll really accomplish is setting off their defense mechanism, which is terrible. They vomit, because their stupid brains say this: “Whatever’s scaring you wants to eat you. So, you should vomit because whatever is scaring you will eat your vomit instead of you.” Brilliant, these birds.

You’ll probably get a good laugh out of it, though, because the birds are basically the eagle’s drunk cousin. When they run away from you, they have this hopping, stumbling gait, and for them to take off and fly, they have to furiously flap their giant wings and jump up and down.

Despite all of that, a little research reveals that these things are actually kind of kickass.

“They are a keystone species for the ecosystem, that’s for sure,” says Duren. “They serve a very vital purpose that, you know, I wouldn’t want to do.”

She means: They’re good for the environment because they clean up roadkill. They only eat roadkill and such if it’s been dead less than 24 hours, though. After all, they do have standards.

The Cherokee Indians considered turkey vultures to be glorious. They gave the birds a way better name than “turkey vulture” because of their beauty—which is debatable—and how they’re able to survive without killing anything. They called them “Peace Eagles.” So, yeah. There’s that.

But forget all that, say the people calling Duren to get help.

RIGHT NOW THERE ARE about 300 turkey vultures in Shelby, and they’re all using basically one or two blocks along Peach and Phillips Streets as both a staging area—where the birds all meet up to talk about the different dead things they found—and a roosting area, where they sleep.

“Having 150 vultures in your backyard isn’t exactly nice and pleasant,” Duren says, “and it doesn’t do anything for property values.”

Several homes in the area have been abandoned and put up for sale by homeowners who got sick of the birds, and now they’re sitting vacant because nobody wants to buy a house covered in turkey-vulture feces.

The government will seriously punish you if you actually kill one—or even try to capture one, for that matter. Turkey vultures are protected under federal law not only in the United States, but Canada and Mexico, too. You violate that law in the U.S., you’ll face up to $15,000 in fines and even a six-month prison stay.

So you can’t shoot them, you can’t capture them, you can’t even really scare them ... the heck are you supposed to do?

Thus far the most effective method of battling the turkey vultures has been to hang effigies of the birds upside down in an infested area. Duren has three of them that her office loans out. They look just as ... fantastic ... as the real thing: movie-prop quality and made with real feathers. When the turkey vultures see one of their own hanging upside down like that, they think it’s been trapped or killed or something, and they get scared of the area and stay away.

Duren says their goal isn’t to completely run the birds out of town, but they would like to spread them out and “make them a little less intimidating.”

The vultures have sparked a heated Facebook debate among members of the Shelby community. A lady named Jean said, “I think they are a beautiful expression of life and enjoy watching them fly above my neighborhood.”

“Love these birds!” said Betsy. “We enjoy seeing them in Mama and Daddy's yard.” While Doug added: “The most magnificent soaring bird we have.”

But then, that which flies magnificently must at some point land, and when turkey vultures land they make a magnificent mess. That’s what Sandy pointed out, sharing her story of destroyed trampolines and sand boxes. Hers was one of the only comments bashing the birds, but it was the longest and most detailed, and others who might be able to share her concerns were presumably preoccupied with cleaning up giant bird droppings and patching holes in their roofs.

Even still, said a fella named Maurice, “I’d take them over pigeons.”

However the Shelby townsfolk feel about the birds, it seems they’ve all at least adapted to their presence, and that’s good, because a very special time of the turkey vulture year just began: breeding season.

Brandon Sneed is a writer based in North Carolina who covers everything from blind Army heroes to ... well, turkey vultures, apparently. You can reach him at brandonsneed.com and @brandonsneed.

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