The movies have taught us that vultures in the sky are a sign of danger to the big-screen hero, but the probable reason the birds have been circling Heflin lately is a bit more benign: deer season.
According to a local wildlife expert, their numbers might be explained because deer season’s annual culling leaves lots of food in the woods for the scavenging birds.
Cleburne County Administrator Steve Swafford said he’s noticed the birds for the last couple of years, but on Wednesday he saw the biggest swarm yet circling over downtown Heflin. It could have been upwards of 300 of them, he said.
Ericha Nix, a wildlife biologist at the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said she had recently received three calls about the vultures. Exactly why they’re here is a mystery, she said, but it’s not coincidence.
“If you have a reason for them to be there, you’ll have a large concentration,” Nix said.
For instance Union Springs, which has a chicken processing plant, harbors a sizeable population of the birds. But Nix isn’t sure what could be attracting them to Cleburne County unless it’s perhaps a large amount of gut piles left by hunters.
“When they show up they’re usually looking for a comfortable place to roost,” Nix said. “Usually there’s a food source a few miles from where they roost.”
Billy Powell, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, said black vultures have become a problem in Alabama’s Tennessee Valley area because they like to roost on the metal power poles on the dams. Their numbers have increased to the point that the birds will attack newly born calves to get enough to eat.
“They would kill the calf while it was being delivered or shortly thereafter,” Powell said.
In his research to help his members handle the problem, Powell discovered the vultures are a protected species under the U.S. Migratory Bird Species Act.
“It’s illegal to shoot them,” Powell said.
However, he said, the farmers who are having problems can contact the state or federal game warden to apply for a permit to kill the birds after they have tried nonlethal methods to get rid of them.
Michael Avery, a wildlife biologist at the Florida Field Station of Wildlife Services Research, said depending on the type of vulture, the birds in Cleburne County could be migrating because of the cold weather.
Turkey vultures, with red heads, will migrate south for the winter. Black vultures, with dark grey heads, more typically stay in the same area.
He said most complaints come because of the birds roosting on buildings or cell towers.
Avery said the birds will roost in packs even on the roofs of homes. It can be a little disconcerting to a homeowner to come out and find a flock of vultures in their yard, Avery said.
“They can be kind of scary looking,” he said. “And they do stink. They’ll be pooping all over the place and they regurgitate the things they can’t digest.”
In addition, the birds are attracted to rubbery things and will tear up roof shingles, window caulk and weatherstripping, Avery said.
There are a number of ways to discourage the vultures from roosting on roofs. Setting off firecrackers or making some other loud noises could scare them off, he said. Some more permanent measures include spike strips that are installed to keep birds from landing on the roof, an electric track that shocks the birds when they touch it or motion-activated sprinklers if they’re landing in yards or patios.
“One of the best ways is to hang up an effigy,” Avery said.
Not a burning doll depicting a politician — a dead vulture that has been preserved by a taxidermist.
“You hang it upside down and it works like a charm,” he said.