For the past seven years, Assistant Director for Custodial Services and Special Functions Dan Levering told me, turkey vultures have taken up residence on and around Dodd House. Though the vultures first roosted in the trees around the dorm, they’ve grown especially fond of the building’s roof in recent years. Passersby might think the birds funny, ominous, or innocuous, but their presence is an all-too-common example of tensions that arise when one species’ needs clash with another’s.
Despite the scavengers’ peaceable temperament, their presence posed increasing health concerns. The flock of forty to sixty birds produced enough droppings to “turn the ground completely white,” Levering said. Turkey vultures also regurgitate what the USDA calls a “reeking and corrosive vomit” (check out the USDA’s Factsheet on Managing Vulture Damage here). Both their stomach acid and urine are highly acidic, and though the habit of urinating on their own legs kills bacteria, it also adds to their putrid smell.
After the birds flocked to Dodd’s roof, this detritus became a greater concern. An air handler on the back of the dorm began to suck the smell into the building. This health hazard was Facilities’ most pressing concern, but furthermore, the ammonia-rich vomit and guano threatened long-term damage to Dodd’s exterior.
Vultures are migratory birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a 1918 federal law that makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell any of the 800 protected species. Violators can face a $15,000 fine or up to six months in jail. When rodents or insects threaten student wellbeing, Facilities can take whatever action necessary, including deadly traps or chemicals. Federal protection (and the issue of scale) called for a creative, nonlethal solution.
When the Williams Record reported on the turkey vulture presence in November 2015, Facilities was in the middle of their first attempt to haze the vultures. During this initial phase, it reported, Facilities installed a machine that emitted a grape odor. “It was supposed to irritate them,” Levering told me. “It would be like a human putting some really hot peppers in a blender and then letting the smell waft out.” Unfortunately, though, the grape smell didn’t deter the vultures for long: most returned to Dodd after a few days. As if in mockery of their adversaries’ efforts, some even roosted next to the machine.
After this initial failure, Facilities turned to a proven solution: an “effigy” (actually just a specially taxidermied vulture). Because of the vultures’ protected status, the USDA itself provided the dead bird. The federal agency also instructed Facilities in how to make it visible at the roost site to effectively frighten off the vultures.
When Facilities first hung the effigy last year, it proved an instant success. “Within five days,” Levering said, “we went from forty to sixty vultures down to none.” He described watching the birds circle the effigy warily before flying away: “They went to the south end of town and didn’t come back that year.”
This spring, though, the vultures returned to Dodd. “Turkey vultures migrate not because of the cold,” Levering explained, “but because the snow covers up the dead things that they eat.” As the snow melted this year, the vultures again found their way north – and back to their favorite spot on Dodd’s roof. Facilities had expected this: the USDA warned that the vultures had imprinted on the area. As spring returned, therefore, so did the effigy.
Human infrastructure isn’t often built to accommodate the seasonal habits of other species. What happens when our interests compete with theirs? And how do we talk about these issues?
Mary Dettloff, Director of Media Relations at the Communications Office, emphasized the importance of informing the public about any large project like this one. Before coming to Williams, Dettloff worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. This background gave her the language to help Facilities communicate the situation to the student body. Dettloff ensured that Daily Messages and other official communications used “the best possible scientific terminology” to describe the process.
Dettloff’s experience in wildlife management gave her insight into how people react to such situations, she told me. For example, Canada geese are considered a nuisance species in Michigan, so the Department of Natural Resources developed a toolkit to effectively haze them from golf clubs, office complexes, and city parks. She described peoples’ reaction to the process, saying: “Often people just don’t understand that this is nature and this is how it works. We had to say, this isn’t a nuisance, this is how species behave.”
Dettloff called the turkey vulture hazing a “teachable moment in terms of wildlife management.” Effective communication about the hazing process reminded students of the endless interspecies tensions around the use of land and resources – and the possibilities for resolving these conflicts without harming the other species.
Driving up Park Street on my way back to campus a few years ago, I watched a turkey vulture seize a dead rabbit from the side of the road and swoop in front of the car with the carrion in its talons. It was a dramatic reminder that the land on which we live isn’t ours alone: our “habitat” overlaps – and sometimes conflicts – with other species’ habitats. Our roads provide the vultures with a ready source of carrion, but how do they affect the rabbit population? When manmade infrastructure reshapes a landscape, changes to the ecosystem affect countless other species – for better or worse. The turkey vultures on Dodd’s roof remind us that the landscape isn’t a blank slate: it’s a tangled, interconnected web of lives, each with their own interests and needs.
Abby Rampone ’17 is a communications intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives