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talon target: Clarksville aims to cut down on buzzards / February 26, 2014
Buzzards have invaded Clarksville, and mankind’s efforts to harass or scare them away are not working.

Town Mayor Kevin Allgood said he’s heard complaints for at least ten years, but the number of documented problems with the airborne scavengers appears to be increasing.

Clarksville Town Manager Jeff Jones acknowledged an escalating number of calls he receives about buzzards. Earlier this month, he turned to Jennifer Cromwell with the USDA Wildlife Service hoping to find a solution.

Cromwell, who spoke last week at the February meeting of Clarksville Town Council, discussed the reasons behind the local infestation. She shared suggestions to help Clarksville eradicate the buzzard swarm — including eliminating food sources and harassing and killing the birds.

The latter option is problematic: Since buzzards are covered by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they can only be killed after obtaining a Migratory Bird Depredation Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Clarksville has two different species of buzzards, according to Cromwell: the turkey vulture and the black vulture. The vultures you see today are not the same ones you’ll see next week or next month, she told Council members.

“If you see 500 [vultures in the area], you’ve got thousand because what happens is there are a lot of vultures in this area and they rotate through surrounding groups. So the birds you have here are part of a much, much bigger population that migrates through the area.”

The birds come because of an abundance of food and fresh water. They stay for the same reasons, and because residents of the area have not given them a reason to leave. Cromwell added that open dumpsters and food left out for feral cats and stray dogs are powerful incentives for buzzards to hang around.

The USDA is willing to help Clarksville disperse its buzzard population, but the most effective tactics require a change in citizen behavior: “Removal of food sources could lessen the likelihood of vultures being attracted to the area,” she said.

The three most common steps identified by Cromwell include

cover trashcans and dumpsters,

remove road-killed animals, hunting and fishing remnants, and dead livestock as quickly as possible,

eliminate the practice of feeding feral cats and stray dogs at sites where buzzards congregate.

Short-term benefits are gained from harassing the birds with noisemakers, lasers, pyrotechnics, paintball guns, rifles, or shotguns fired off near the roosting sites, said Cromwell. But care must be taken not to kill or wound the vultures unless the shooter has the necessary permit.

Anyone attempting to harass the birds must comply with local noise and gun ordinances, “but otherwise, harass to your heart’s content.”

Cromwell noted two shortcomings with harassment techniques. The first is lack of persistence. Whatever technique is used, for best results the birds must be harassed as soon as they begin to use the site, and the harassment must be persistent so that birds are not afforded an opportunity to return to the area. The second problem with the harassment technique is that the birds can learn to ignore the pestering.

One of the most effective ways to disperse vultures resting on houses and other building during the daytime, said Cromwell, is to hang a vulture effigy at the roost site. The effigy can be either an artificial device that looks real, or an actual dead vulture (preferably one that has undergone taxidermic preparation); it must be displayed from a high, prominent location so that the birds using the roost notice it.

In addition, the effigy must be hung by its feet, upside down, and far enough from branches or other points of contact to prevent entanglement.

“There are some people who come running out of their houses and yell at you” when harassment techniques are used, she noted. “The way we get around this is we sign up properties ahead of time, giving us permission to be on [people’s] property. For the most part when people come out and they are saying ‘what are you doing,’ when we tell them what we are doing, we are trying to chase the vultures down, they are more than happy to see us there,” Cromwell said.

There is some evidence that tethering helium-filled balloons to trees near the roosting site, using Mylar tape, can disperse the birds. However, Cromwell said the vultures could possibly return to the site once the balloons and tape are gone.

One technique that does not work is the installation of bird spikes on roofs and window ledges. Either the vultures place their feet around the spikes, or they bend the spikes down to create a better perching site, she said.

Instead, Cromwell suggests installing a solar powered electric track or a device known as a “Coyote Roller” along a roof ridgeline. The electric track shocks the bird when it lands, and the cylinders in Coyote Roller spin the bird off the roof.

Cromwell advised against trapping and relocating the birds because it simply shifts the problem to a new location.

The most effective method for cutting down on the buzzard population is lethal control. Cromwell said she would assist the town with obtaining permits that would authorize the killing of up to 40 vultures for each permit. In other parts of Virginia where lethal control has been used, vulture damage has ceased.

Given the increasing population trends for both vulture species, Cromwell said, selective lethal control does not appear to “impact the overall health and viability of the species,” but does resolve local vulture management problems.

Whatever eradication methods the town chooses, Cromwell encouraged officials to communicate with the public in advance. One suggestion was to take out an ad in the local paper, announcing the date, times and locations where vulture eradication efforts will occur before the start.

Hearing that, councilman Glenn Jurczyk expressed concern that the only way a vulture eradication program could “be sold to the public” was if the town “had the backing of the USDA.” Cromwell, however, advised against using her agency due to cost. “The downside to that is our agency has to charge for our services, so when we assist communities we have to charge. For us to send a couple of people down here for one night, you are looking at $900. When we do the entire thing by ourselves, you are looking at multiples of thousands. That’s why I say it is better for you to do it.”

Councilman Mike Sizemore agreed, saying, “We can do it. Two-thirds of this job is communication. As long as we communicate with the general public on what we are doing, we’re not going to have any problems.”

While no formal vote was taken on when or how to proceed with eradication efforts, the majority of council members spoke in favor of town officials finding the best solution to the buzzard issue.

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