Dan and Carol Ann O'Byrne sit in their breakfast nook each morning, look out at their horse paddock and the woods beyond and face mortality.
Dozens of vultures line up on their backyard fence, darken their barn doorway, gather like doom in the trees. Just waiting.When the family dachshund goes out to stretch in the sun, a half-dozen birds swoop down and circle him, their backs hunched and featherless necks and heads stretched forward quizzically, as if to say:
Though commonly associated with the South and Southwest, turkey vultures and their smaller but more aggressive relatives, black vultures, are expanding their range to the north and east and into New York state, wildlife experts say. Perhaps a hundred black and turkey vultures have chosen to settle on the O'Byrnes' two-acre property here in this farm town on the outskirts of New Paltz, about 65 miles north of New York City.
The birds have not harmed the O'Byrnes' three horses, four dogs, several cats or their goat, but their constant presence means the family cannot keep furniture on the lawn or screens in the windows. The birds tear the screens apart, shred the vinyl caulking from window and door frames, peck at the house siding and pull at the roof shingles with their feet.
The O'Byrnes complain that they cannot have lunch on their back deck or sunbathe in their yard, and they spend a good deal of time scraping bird droppings and sweeping regurgitated scraps off their porch. If they feel like grilling a steak, they set up a barbecue in their garage.
And there's not much the O'Byrnes can do about it. Vultures, like most indigenous species of migratory birds, are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, an international treaty adopted in 1918, said Richard Chipman, the state director of the U.S. Agriculture Department. In order to trap, kill, relocate or handle a vulture or its eggs, a permit is required from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such "depredation permits," as they are called, are not readily granted.
Bird count surveys have shown that the national population of vultures more than doubled in the thirty years from 1966 to 1996, though no exact population statistics are available, Chipman said.
The increased numbers have forced the birds to expand their range and to vary their eating patterns by occasionally attacking living animals, he said.
The O'Byrnes are the first to report a vulture problem in New York, said Diane Pence, a wildlife biologist for the wildlife service, which issued 27 depredation permits in the mid-Atlantic region last year. "This is my house and I'm not giving it up to them," said O'Byrne, 47, a recreation counselor for troubled children. "We absolutely love our home."
So far the O'Byrnes have tried shiny mylar tape and balloons that a visiting biologist said would scare the birds away. They ripped the tape and popped the balloons. The O'Byrnes tried playing a recording of the sound of shotguns blasting every 15 seconds. It scared the birds for a few minutes, but they grew accustomed to the sound even before their neighbors called the police 15 minutes later.
The O'Byrnes put a bucket of mothballs out, thinking the vultures would be repelled by the smell, but the birds just pecked at them. The most effective technique so far, said O'Byrne, an avid golfer, has been to whack golf balls at them. The birds fly off but, of course, they return.