Problem: Vultures can quickly become a nuisance when dozens or even hundreds of them descend on a park or someone’s backyard. The turkey vulture and black vulture, classified as migratory birds, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Solution: Gwinnett County, Ga. officials created a vulture abatement action plan with federal partners.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, hundreds of birds descend on the seaside village of Bodega Bay, Calif., terrorizing the residents.
Why didn’t anyone pick up the phone and call the county parks department?
If your county is experiencing a problem with birds, you can contact Mark Patterson.
Gwinnett County, Ga. certainly heard from the public when nearly 200 vultures began making a local park their home two years ago, said Mark Patterson, deputy director for the Department of Community Services.
“They were concerned about why they were there,” he said. “With such a large congregation, they thought it meant that something dead was in the park.”
In September 2015, Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta, began to notice an increase in the number of black vultures and turkey vultures that began roosting at the park, home to a swimming pool, a 25-acre lake, paved trails, horseshoe pits and ball fields.
It wasn’t the first time they’d made themselves at home there, but it was the first time the county had seen them in such large numbers, Patterson said. “Vultures in general have been utilizing the site for longer than I’ve been here, and I’ve been working here for 30 years,” he noted. Most summers the county saw maybe five or six birds.
In addition to the public’s concern, the county was also looking at damage to facilities. The birds were tearing out rubber hosing that protected the electrical infrastructure for the lights on the ballfields, damaging plastic liners on swimming pool slides, picking at sun canopies and pulling apart soft caulking on the pool’s edges, costing the county thousands of dollars in repair work.
The parks department contacted a USDA wildlife biologist to find out if this was typical behavior for the birds. The biologist suggested some solutions including changing trash receptacles so they couldn’t get into them. “Vultures will eat anything — trash, food left behind,” said Patterson.
Another suggestion was to make the birds uncomfortable so they would want to move from the area. The parks department began using laser lights and “sound cannons” at dawn and dusk. “We would go out with the laser beams to harass them,” Patterson said. “It distracts and unnerves them.”
The sound cannons play repetitive noises such as the sound of distressed prey or predatory calls on a digital device, Patterson said.
The county soon found out that the laser and sound cannon were temporary distractions and more was going to be needed to get the birds to budge.
None of the birds, protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, could be killed. But the county could apply for a federal depredation permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, as a last resort. The county applied for and received the permit, which would allow them to kill a number of birds if it came to that, Patterson said.
But first the biologist suggested hanging effigies or fake dead birds to scare them away. The county purchased three effigies from USDA (each one costs about $175). The effigies, hung upside-down, were made of painted black wood and parts of real birds such as wings and tail feathers. (USDA has a reclamation-salvage permit that allows them to possess various parts of birds to re-use in effigies.)
“Vultures do not want to be around dead vultures,” Patterson said. The effigies were hung from a cell tower about 400 feet up in the air. “We contracted with a company that maintains the cell towers,” he said.
After the effigies were hung, the county parks department shut the park down at 5 p.m. for three days in a row in February 2016 so they could use every weapon in their arsenal to get rid of the birds, Patterson said.
The county did end up using its federal depredation permit to shoot at the birds but only one bird was hit and it was euthanized, Patterson said.
“In terms of permanently keeping them away, the effigies were the most effective,” Patterson said. Today, the county sees maybe one or two vultures hanging around the park.
The number of black vultures is about 1.8 million in the country, according to the Avian Conservation Assessment Database.