Vulture wars: Denison and Granville's four-pronged fight

Chris Gaitten
A vulture effigy hangs from a tree.

Problem: Hundreds of vultures roost on a bucolic campus, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage to buildings. Unlike deer, which are frequently culled by the release of eager hunters, vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, so tactics involving bullets are frowned upon. Solution: Shoot them with lasers!

That scenario played out recently for Denison University, Granville and the U.S. Department of Agriculture when about 300 black vultures and turkey vultures gathered in the thick pines on Denison’s campus. They have traditionally called the area home, but they can cause serious damage when they flock in concentrated numbers, says Jeff Pelc, a wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Wildlife Services. They pick at roof shingles and weather stripping, which can cause water intrusion, and their droppings on rooftops and in air conditioning and heating louvers cause health and human safety concerns, he says. A press release from Denison attributed $50,000 in damages to the birds just last year.

So on Jan. 8, Pelc and his colleagues in the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began a wildlife damage-management program to scare away the birds, hoping to drive them off the campus and beyond the nearby village of Granville. In this case, that meant using lasers, pyrotechnics, effigies and electronic windsocks to “harass” the vultures. Within a few days their numbers had dropped significantly, Pelc says, though wildlife experts plan to keep an eye on the area for the foreseeable future because more vultures will likely return at some point.

Pelc says the key to any such damage-management program is to integrate multiple tactics to keep the airborne scavengers off balance. Here, he gives an explanation of the four methods, all of which have been scientifically tested and proven, he says.

Vulture effigies—The USDA collects dead vultures through other operations, and some are preserved by taxidermy. Then they are mounted as if dead and hanging (like in the photo above) near where the living vultures roost at night. “The vultures themselves are very social, they’re very wise birds,” Pelc says. “If you’re walking through the woods and you see a dead person hanging in a tree, you’re not going to stick around. You’re going to go the other way.”

Lasers—Experts scare vultures by pointing laser-emitting devices that look like flashlights—with impressive names like the Avian Dissuader—at the birds or at the branches on which they’re perched. Pelc says green lasers work better than red because green shows up longer in the morning at first light.

Pyrotechnics—The technical name is “explosive test-control devices,” and they’re not exactly the fireworks someone would buy over the counter in Ohio. “They’re actually shot out of a small pistol-launcher similar to a track starter pistol,” Pelc says. “One makes a real loud report like an M-80 or something, and another one makes a very shrill screaming sound like a bottle rocket would.”

Electronic windsocks—Also called sky dancers, similar devices have been popularized by men in bad suits hocking used Buicks. Pelc explains: “So when you’re driving by a car dealership and you see that windsock that’s going up, it’s pushed by a blower motor and it’s flailing back and forth through the wind. It’s the same exact thing that we utilize, but we put them on [timers], so they’ll flail for a little bit and go down for several hours.”