Merced Life

Finding vulture deterrents in a Merced neighborhood

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes 46,415 endangered animals and plants on Earth.

This is an astonishing number, especially when one considers that over 16,000 of those species are in imminent danger of extinction.

Some of the species on this list are well-known to human inhabitants of the Central Valley, including Delta smelt and various fairy shrimp (the conservancy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, and vernal pool fairy shrimp are all endangered and can be found in Merced-area vernal pools, and many Mercedians know they also can cause quite a stir when someone proposes to build a university on their territory).

Other animals on the list bear such colorful names that I couldn’t help but mention them: the African wild ass, the nickerbean blue butterfly, the helmeted honeyeater, the lesser rabbit bandicoot, and the resplendent quetzal. I have never, to my knowledge, encountered any of these creatures, but their names alone send my imagination whirling.

The California condor, a type of New World vulture, is also on the list. In fact, the condor makes just about every endangered list of animals one can think of. The California condor began to disappear in the last decade of the 19th century, and by the late 1980s, only a few dozen condors remained in the wild. Humans intervened, captured all of the known wild condors, and began an ambitious breeding program. Still, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there were only 460 California condors, wild and captive, as of 2017, and so they remain endangered.

But the California condor’s hardy cousin, the turkey vulture, does not appear on any endangered species list. The IUCN considers turkey vultures to be a species of least concern. Some estimates put the turkey vulture population at more than four million, and for a few residents of Merced, who must cope with vultures colonizing in their backyards, it must sometimes seem as if all four million have decided to roost on their property. However, though these vultures are not in danger of dying out anytime soon, they are nevertheless protected by the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, which means that one cannot kill them and cannot disturb them when they are nesting (though a recent interpretation of the century-old Migratory Bird Act under the Trump administration might remove some of these protections).

In any case, my neighbor— who is sharing his property with vultures who have come to appreciate the benefits of a non-migratory lifestyle—wishes no harm to the hulking inhabitants of his tree. He merely wants them to find another home, and so he has embarked on a plan to scare the vultures away permanently by making so much noise they’ll eventually fly away in search of more peaceful surroundings.

My neighbor’s plan is one often recommended by experts who derive income from the removal of troublesome beasts. But the recommendation comes with a caveat: if done frequently over a long period of time (say, a few months), the vultures will finally realize that the noise presents no real threat and they will no longer be affected by the starting pistol, or cannon, or fireworks. They will remain perched, maddening in their impervious dignity. This also holds true of other suggested remedies to roosting vultures, including placing strobe lights in one’s yard (these are urban vultures, after all, streetwise and accustomed to flashing lights) and positioning scary-looking owls and hawks in the branches of your trees. This last remedy also ignores the reality of vulture roosting behavior—vultures hang out in very tall trees, making the placement of those dummies near the top all but impossible.

Other vulture-deterrent strategies suggested by experts seem equally ineffective, and sometimes laughable. These include motion-activated sprinklers, standing on guard with a hose when the birds come to congregate in the evening, and shaking the tree to scare the birds from the branches. And then there is the shiny object theory, which suggests tying CDs to helium balloons and sending them aloft near your tree. A frustrated home owner might read these solutions and wish he’d never thrown away all of those CDs back in 2001, or he might wonder how to go about finding a sprinkler that can shoot water one hundred feet into the air.

At last, the hapless homeowner might settle upon finding a tall ladder and a long hose, and then position himself by the tree near dusk, going mano-a-mano with the vultures. In the end, he will find this method only minimally effective because what really makes vultures difficult to evict, beyond the logistics of their roosting habits, is this one thing: vultures are notoriously stubborn. They will come back again and again, as long as there is some place to come back to, and their intractable nature is paired with a remarkable adaptability, which means that they can figure out a way to survive in just about any environment which offers food and water, including cities housing 80,000 humans.

Thus, there are few truly effective measures for relocating vultures, and of course the best solutions are also the most costly ones. This, I am sure, comes as no surprise to anyone. They include removing topmost branches, or the entire tree, and possibly one other, more creative and environmentally-friendly idea: using real birds of prey, not just dummies. This last method will be covered in my next column.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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