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Vulture shock

They're back! The birds of unsavory habit and menacing air. Some say they have a soft side.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002

They're back! The birds of unsavory habit and menacing air. Some say they have a soft side.

TAMPA -- They have done everything possible to drive them away.

They have put spikes on skyscrapers and placed inflatable, rotating mannequins on rooftops. They have barraged them with obnoxious sounds and mild electric shocks.

Despite all this, the turkey vultures have returned to soar the skies above downtown Tampa.

"They're a little late, actually. They're usually here around the 13th," said Barbara Carter, who works for Cushman and Wakefield, a property management company on the 25th floor of One Tampa City Center. "We kind of look for them."

The giant black birds arrive in October each year after spending the summer up north. There are several reasons they are drawn to downtown Tampa.

Tall buildings from which to soar? Check.

Strong thermal waves of hot air on which to glide? Absolutely.

Lots of tasty roadkill, courtesy of vehicle-clogged roads and sprawling development? Most definitely.

"They are one of the few birds that benefit from human encroachment," said Jeff Ewelt, animal shows manager at Lowry Park Zoo.

But not all people appreciate the vultures' close proximity to their office windows. Office legends have sprung up about the vultures, including one about a stockbroker's office that was relocated because the clients were unnerved by the vultures roosting outside the receptionist's window. Another claims that fake snakes were placed on the roof of a tall building to scare the birds away. Problem was, the story goes, the vultures thought the snakes were real, dead and potentially tasty.

Perhaps the most well-known building vs. bird showdown came in 1998, when the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse was built.

Turkey vultures flocked to its ledges. Judges reported that the big birds would land and depart outside their windows, crash into the glass and occasionally even leave a half-eaten small animal carcass on a ledge.

The courthouse tried piping the simulated cry of dying turkey vultures to scare off the birds, but all it did was annoy pedestrians. The federal government, which owns the building, finally found success with electric wires that deliver a mild shock to the birds if they try to roost. The vultures decamped to a nearby abandoned hotel.

Because turkey vultures are social birds, they nest together, which is why one can see scores of them downtown on a given fall day. Experts say vultures are monogamous and tend to roost in the same area for years, generations even.

Both turkey vultures, which have red heads, and black vultures, which have black heads, roost in Tampa. The turkey vulture holds its wings in a slight "V" while soaring. Both are under state protection.

They are also intelligent. Ewelt says his smartest show performer is Smedley, a 7-year-old black vulture.

But not everyone shares Ewelt's love of vultures.

Bernice Constantin, the state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says during peak vulture season in Florida -- October through March -- his office gets an average of 10 vulture-related complaint calls a day from homeowners and building owners.

Constantin has heard of homeowners who have suffered $50,000 in vulture-related losses. Sometimes vultures peck and tear at caulking, pool screens, boats and antennae.

"For some reason, they get bored," he said. "They begin a feeding frenzy."

The National Wildlife Research Center and the USDA are doing research on turkey vultures, trying to find ways to manage the birds. Based in Gainesville, the project works with volunteer building owners to determine whether things such as electric shocks, lasers, effigies and noise scare the birds away.

Whatever it takes, some people say.

"When I see them, I think death," said Mike Loredo, who has been a letter carrier in downtown Tampa for 13 years. "They're nasty."

Okay, okay. They're not pretty and they do eat dead things. But give the buzzards a break. They are actually nice birds with many pleasant qualities, according to the Reno, Nev.-based Turkey Vulture Society.

Unlike the black vulture, which can kill small animals, the turkey vulture does not have the strength in its claws to grasp a living animal, and its odd-shaped beak cannot tear into a fresh carcass.

Turkey vultures' digestive systems are also unique. They kill all bacteria and viruses found in the carcasses.

The birds are family-oriented. They communicate with each other when they find food. They even play games such as follow the leader, tag and speed soaring.

On Tuesday afternoon, high above Tampa's tall buildings, the birds glided with the wind.

Ewelt, the zoo manager, was excited to hear that the vultures have returned. In past years, Ewelt confessed, he visited downtown just to watch them swoop and soar against the blue sky.

"They are the most beautiful flying bird," he said.

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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