Black Vultures
“Ancient Country Wisdom”

By Henry H. Mitchell, February 2009 with a January 2013 follow-up.

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

A Black Vulture visits Chatham in 2002 (see article).

An Unwelcome Vulture Club

Recently our town of Chatham, Virginia, especially along the Tanyard Branch valley, has been plagued with Black Vultures, roosting in large, unsightly, messy flocks, possibly unsanitary/unhealthful and even menacing (to small pets). Many news articles have been published, and town manager Mike Jones anounced a pending solution (see end of this article). Further factors are that the town of Chatham does not allow the discharge of firearms by except by permit, and that the Black Vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The various events prompted my following reminiscence.

I recall from long ago some supposed principles regarding nuisance Black Vultures. These following recollections apply specifically to Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), sometimes referred to colloquially in Southside Virginia as “Carolina Buzzards,” not to the larger red-headed Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), which we usually called “Turkey Buzzards,” and which spark even more colorful recollections and tales than the Black Vultures do.

A Theory on Vulture Culture

The theory I recall concerning nuisance Black Vultures is this:

  1. Their attraction to an area is for the purpose of roosting; i.e., undisturbed sleep.
  2. If individual buzzards' sleep is upset sufficiently, they will not return to that roost.
  3. Therefore one's objective is to shift the collective memory of the flock by dissuading individuals from roosting in the area in question.
  4. And therefore, furthermore, killing the birds does not accomplish that objective, unless you kill all of them, which is nearly impossible (or so goes the theory).

The Slap-and-Flap Solution

Based on this (unscientific, but perhaps valid anyway) theory, a solution is to startle individual vultures, precisely and one at a time, starting at the periphery of the group and working inward, so they are awakened one at a time, rather than all together, en masse. This maneuver occurs immediately after they go to sleep, which is during dusk just before absolute darkness. The window of opportunity for this action is only a few minutes. When they are startled they rouse and ponderously flap away to find a different roost, and in this manner “reset” their roosting habit. (This is an assignment for an 8-year-old or older in the household.) It is best accomplished with a silent gravel-shooter (slingshot built on a forked stick) with dead aim. It will apply just enough pain to startle the bird awake, but not enough to injure it or prevent it from flying to a new location. If the young vulture-moving specialist is unskilled with a gravel shooter and/or doesn't own one (as kids, we constructed them out of green forked branches, especially from mature Privet Hedge trees; inner-tube strips; and old leather shoe tongues), a secondary alternative might be a low-velocity, non-penetrating BB gun with very accurate sighting. (It makes a little noise, but hopefully not enough to awaken the birds. If the BB gun is noisy, or inaccurate at the distance chosen, or strong enough to actually injure the bird, it won't work. A pump-action high-velocity pellet gun, for example, would be entirely the wrong instrument.)

A startled bird is likely to awaken one or more of its roosting neighbors, which may then fly off without having been “slapped.” Not having associated the roost with discomfort, that bird might return to the same roost, or so goes the theory. So the project may take more than one evening for successful completion — although the theory is that the birds are so communal that success with several birds may be enough to move the entire flock.

Admittedly, this may only move the birds a short distance. It also doesn't dimininish the flock. And even this much disturbance to the critters may be at least theoretically outside the bounds of present-day interpretations of the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 or some further restriction…? (Someone else will have to answer that question; I don't know.)

Vulture Shock

But to actually rid the town of the beasts, I suppose the shock, awe, and firepower planned (as described below) is necessary. Plus, the above set of principles is merely passed along from what I call “ancient country wisdom” and probably not considered valid by modern experts on Black Vulture behavior.

Local Vulture History

On a related topic, see also an article about one of the probable founding fathers of the Black Vulture flock along Chatham's Tanyard Branch.

The following is from Chatham Views Blogspot.

From: Mr. Michael A. Jones, Town Manager, Town of Chatham, Virginia
Date: Friday Feb. 20, 2009

Re: USDA Vulture Eradication Program Commencement

On Monday Feb. 23, 2009, representatives from the USDA will be in Chatham to begin the Vulture eradication program. This program will consist of killing vultures and placing their carcass in the trees by the roost.

After the vultures are killed, a program of shooting pyrotechnics into the trees will commence for the next seven days. The majority of this activity will take place around 4-6 pm daily.

The Chatham Police department will be training with the USDA officials so that they can assist in the eradication.

I would ask anyone who wishes to participate in this program who is Town residents to meet at Town Hall at 4 pm on Monday Feb 23, 2009.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call me at (434) 334-9647. Thank you for helping make your Town a better place to live!

Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus)

Black Vultures swarm over Chatham after USDA officials discharge pyrotechnic devices on the afternoon of February 23, 2009.

Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus)

Who has the last word? A flock of Black Vultures roosts at the same location along Tanyard Branch valley in Chatham at 2 p.m., January 11, 2013.