- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — Maybe if they were pretty, the ubiquitous buzzards that soar over Texas and elsewhere on their way to dine on some carcass wouldn’t be viewed with such repugnance or be considered nuisances.

“Unquestionably, they’re as ugly as sin,” said Ian Tizard, a Texas A&M; University professor of immunology and director of the school’s Schubot Exotic Bird Center.

The misnamed birds — they’re really vultures, and either turkey or black vultures — range over much of the United States, and they’re welcomed as a sure sign of spring on their annual March return to Hinckley, Ohio.

But their proliferation is making them unwelcome, from high-rises in Florida to ranches in Texas, denying them the respect they may deserve as Mother Nature’s vacuum cleaners. Think roadkill.

“We’d have a lot more smelly dead bodies around the place if they weren’t there to clean it up,” Mr. Tizard said.

But Texas ranchers increasingly are telling wildlife authorities that black vultures — the more aggressive version of the two birds and reaching 25 inches in length with wingspans of 5 feet — are killing calves, lambs and young goats.

“They’re prospering,” said Mr. Tizard, who has studied birds for more than 40 years. “Clearly if they’re killing cows that otherwise would live, that indeed is a cause for some significant concern.”

City commissioners in Madisonville, about 100 miles north of Houston, gave their blessing in January to shooting vultures blamed for property damage as long as folks obtain the proper federal permits.

Vultures are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Last month, officials in Barstow, Fla., moved to exclude vultures from protection on a local bird sanctuary island.

Randy Smith, a San Antonio-based biologist with the Texas Wildlife Services Program, said complaints about buzzards have soared.

“Ten years ago, it was a rarity, but it’s pretty frequent nowadays,” he said. “Usually we’ll end up assisting the rancher. Nine times out of 10, we’ll assist him getting a permit.”

The permits allow trapping, killing or the use of harassment to try to drive away the birds.

The Halifax Health Medical Center outside Daytona Beach, Fla., has been using the method since early this year, apparently with some success. Metal spikes, sprinklers and a loud roof alarm are used to discourage vultures from roosting.

However, harassment may not work for long.

“They’re very smart,” Mr. Smith said. “These vultures learn over time what you’re doing doesn’t hurt them.”

Mr. Tizard said people are at least partly responsible for the birds’ population growth.

“Imagine what Texas was like before cars,” he said. “There would have been dead critters around the place, but never so obvious like the possums and skunks along the side of the road and roadkill deer.”

“And, on the whole, people don’t bother them,” he added.

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