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The Nature of Things

A blog about nature and the environment

Too many black vultures


“They vomit all over the place, urinate on themselves to cool off, and feed on the dead. Now they’re disgusting and even frightening suburban homeowners.”

That’s the start to a story in the November-December issue of Audubon magazine about hundreds of black vultures who have decided to call part of Leesburg, Va. home.

The birds gather next to a home on Cornwall Street, lounging on the home’s roof during sunny mornings and hanging around a nearby cemetery.

“At first just a few dozen settled each sunset into a pair of tall pines. Evening by evening, more joined the roost. Their numbers climbed to 100, then 200, then 300. They filled the pines until boughs sheared off with their collective weight. The roost trees were slathered in excrement, white as candles.”

The Green Chimneys School in Patterson has its own vulture problem, black vultures who come to the school in Patterson and hang out with caged vultures. The freeloading birds are looking for a handout during feeding time, dirtying cages and water troughs with their excrement and damaging structures.

I wrote a story about the GC vultures earlier this year and I’ve pasted it after the break. When I talked earlier this fall with Paul Kupchok, the school’s wildlife center director, the black vultures were still a hassle and Kupchok was trying to figure out what to do about them.

Photo is by TJN photographer Stuart Bayer.

– Sunday, February 10, 2008
Publication: The Journal News
Black vultures flock to Green Chimneys

PATTERSON – They came for the company and stayed for the food.

That’s the theory behind the inundation of wild black vultures at Green Chimneys School in Patterson, an eruption of traditionally uncommon feathered visitors.

“There was a time when we first began seeing them that we just saw them in the summer. Now, we see them all the time,” said Paul Kupchok, director of the school’s wildlife center.

Nobody believed him a decade ago. Kupchok said friends dismissed his accounts about the unheard-of appearance of black vultures in New York. The species is considered a Southern cousin to the region’s more common turkey vultures – the large birds who soar on V-shaped wings above highways and fields.

The initial attraction appeared to be their two caged brethren – one of which was shot, the other apparently abandoned by its parents – who couldn’t be released to the wild and are part of the school’s animal-assisted therapy program. The school helps emotionally troubled children.

A handful at a time, the black vultures arrived, seemingly to commiserate with the school’s vultures. They since have learned about feeding time for Green Chimney’s 51 vultures, hawks, owls and eagles, who dine on a delectable selection of dead mice and rats. They told their friends, who told their friends, and so on.

Kupchok said he’s counted up to 60 black vultures at one time hunched in the trees of the school’s Patterson campus. The gathering might seem ominous, given their stereotype as an omen of death, but in reality it is annoying.

“There are literally days when they follow me around, swinging the pail (of rodents) and they try to get in the pail,” Kupchok said.

Black vultures didn’t exist in New York 20 years ago, experts said. The first nesting pair in the state was discovered in 1997. It wasn’t until six or seven years ago that the birds were spotted regularly during Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900.

Those changes represent a shift in the population of a species once thought to venture no farther north than the Mason-Dixon line. Explanations for why the birds expanded their range focus on climate change or food availability. Scientists, though, agree the birds are where they once weren’t.

“Black vultures historically haven’t been here,” said Paul Huth, research director at the Mohonk Preserve in Ulster County.

The 6,500-acre preserve was home to the state’s first documented black vulture nest. Huth has worked at Mohonk for 34 years. Its bird records go back to 1925.

“What we’ve seen now is that they’ve been breeding fairly regularly,” Huth said. “We were seeing turkey vultures every month of the year. Black vultures are now also here year round. I think they’re well adapted.”

Researchers twice fanned out across the state and compiled a survey of breeding birds. Black vultures weren’t found during the 1980-85 foray. The second one, from 2000 to 2005, shows a cluster of breeding sites in New York. Almost all are in the Hudson Valley.

Kevin McGowan, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, wrote the black vulture account for the latest survey. He said the bird’s presence was one of its most significant discoveries.

“We really don’t know (why they’ve moved into New York),” he said. “Maybe it’s global warming. I doubt that myself.”

“One of the most plausible explanations,” McGowan said, is the increase in white-tailed deer. More deer mean more road kill and more carcasses lost by hunters. Both are vulture meals.

Black vultures are a stockier, smaller version of turkey vultures. The newcomers are more tolerant of humans and more social. They gather in groups and can overwhelm a turkey vulture who thinks he may have a carcass to himself.

John Hannan, president of the Bedford Audubon Society, said he’s spied vulture roosts at Constitution Marsh in Garrison and near Interstate 684’s Exit 3 in Armonk.

“At Constitution Marsh and Armonk, the black vulture population continues to grow as black vultures are more aggressive and tend to dominate over turkey vultures,” he said. “Most roosts started out as turkey vulture spots, and, in the last few years, black vultures’ populations have continued to grow in the area.”

At Green Chimneys, the black vultures perch on fences and atop cages, soiling the ground beneath and damaging the structures with their acidic feces and urine. Kupchok said the birds bathe in the cow and horse troughs during the summer, dirtying the water. They also wander into the wildlife office if the door is left ajar and toss the place.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loves birds more than I do,” he said. “But they try my patience every year.”

Reach Michael Risinit at mrisinit@lohud.com or 845-228-2274.

On the Web

To learn more about black vultures, go to www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Black_Vulture. html.

For more information about the state’s Breeding Bird Atlas, visit www.dec.ny.gov/ animals/7312. html.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 20th, 2008 at 1:33 pm by Mike Risinit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Category: audubon, black vulture, Green Chimeys school, Uncategorized