Turkey vultures scan for food atop NC tower

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — For the time being, one of the city’s most unusual families has settled into the heart of Haymount – and they don’t appear to be leaving any time soon.

More than 50 turkey vultures have taken up residence atop the Haymount water tower off Wilson Street. Every morning, like their earthbound neighbors, the birds take off for work, then return in the evening.

“They’re very quiet,” said Joan Florentine, a neighbor to the turkey vultures. She says the birds have been quieter than some families on the street.

“If you don’t look up,” she said, “you probably wouldn’t know they were there at all.”

But if you do look up, you’ll be treated to a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” – dozens of ungainly, bald-headed creatures glaring over the water tower rails. Some slowly raise their wings as if waving to their human neighbors.

They rarely make noise, other than an occasional grunt. Then, as if on cue, the birds take off in clusters of a dozen or more, their fleeting shadows cast over Woodrow Park or the playground of Alpha Academy.

It’s uncertain when the vultures (often – and mistakenly – called buzzards) began roosting on the tower. When the Fayetteville Public Works Commission sand-blasted and repainted it five years ago, it was not required to file for permits to disturb the bird’s habitat.

“We’ve lived here for 10 years and never seen so many of them,” said Diane Pierce. “Last weekend, they filled the top rail, and some were sitting on the steps.

“Not long ago, I was taking the trash out and one was sitting on our fence. He wasn’t doing anything, just watching me. I clapped my hands to shoo him away, and he just raised up his wings like he was saying, `Yeah? And what are you going to do about it?’ “

Wildlife experts say the vultures probably stumbled onto the perch. Being social critters, they invited some friends, who invited more friends.

Eventually, it became home for the wake (that’s the official term for a bunch of turkey vultures).

“It’s quite common for them to claim a high spot to roost,” said Dick Hamilton of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “In the past, they would use trees, but cell towers and water towers work just as nicely.

“Sitting up high like that gives them a sense of security. It also gives them a jump start on the day’s work.”

And what, exactly, is work for a turkey vulture? Are you reading this with your breakfast?

Turkey vultures and their smaller cousins, black vultures, are the South’s premier road-kill cleanup crew. Turkey vultures have a phenomenal sense of smell, which they rely on to find their prey.

“Prey,” in this case, is used loosely. Their meal isn’t going anywhere. From fetid fish on the Cape Fear River to a dead deer or putrid possum along the highway, if these guys can smell it, they’ll find it.

And eat it.

“Have you seen them looping around in the air?” Hamilton said. They’re honing in on their meal.

“That’s their primary purpose in nature. They’re scavengers. They’ll eat what other animals would leave behind.”

The birds are able to break down toxins that would kill other animals. That means there’s always something out there to eat. Which is good, because turkey vultures are lousy hunters.

“They have decent eyesight, but their claws are really weak,” said Andy Wood, a state official with the Audubon Society. “You’ve seen them hopping around on the ground around a carcass? That’s because they can barely walk. They certainly won’t be able to grab anything. Their beaks are not very tough, either.

“Out in ranch country in the West, there have been reports of vultures attacking newborn calves. But here, with so much easy food around, why would they go to the trouble of hunting?” Wood says.

The highest structure on the highest hill around gives them a great vantage point, but what are they looking for at the Haymount water tower?

The answer, Wood says, may be in the air. When the vultures gaze out over the city, they are not seeking something to eat.

They’re looking for a ride.

“Vultures are able to see changes in the air,” Wood explained. “You know how you can see mirages, or heat rising off a road in the summer? They do the same thing. They soar on these thermal currents for miles, rarely flapping their wings.”

With a commanding view and ample food, it’s possible that the vultures may stick around.

The biggest problem has been waste. While vultures don’t mind the smell, people do. Their guano, which the birds produce copiously, is described as smelling like a cross between ammonia and raw sewage, and the birds have a disquieting habit of regurgitating road kill if they feel threatened.

If the wake on the water tower gets too rowdy, neighbors would have to seek a state wildlife permit to chase the birds away.

Successful methods elsewhere have included fireworks, automated sprinkler systems and fishing line that trips them.

But if the birds are chased from one spot, they’ll just move to another.

“Besides,” Florentine added, “they’re fun to watch. We don’t bother them, and they don’t bother us.

“They’re better neighbors than some I’ve had.”

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This story was written and provided by The Associated Press Wire.  (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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