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California and the West : Town in Flap as Vultures Raise a Stink : Wildlife: But as Merced officials try to drive away resident and migrating buzzards, others praise the carrion eaters' virtues.

September 24, 1999|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As it makes its annual fall migration from the West Coast to its wintering grounds in Mexico and South America, the turkey vulture is receiving a decidedly ambivalent California welcome this week.

Merced city officials are setting off fireworks in an attempt to drive the big black birds from their perches in a stand of eucalyptus trees, while the Audubon Society is making final preparations for a weekend festival in Kern County to celebrate "one of the avian kingdom's most successful and ubiquitous subjects."

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the bald, redheaded birds would be both reviled and revered. Turkey vultures soar like eagles and remove road kill like street sweepers. But if they live next door, they can put a serious stink on the backyard patio.

Along M Street in the San Joaquin Valley town of Merced, the vultures have been familiar residents for years. The street's median is lined with two rows of nearly 100-foot-tall eucalyptus trees, planted by a pioneering rancher who wanted to provide shade for women riding in their buggies.

In more recent years, vultures have roosted in the trees year-round, their number swelled by migrating birds each fall. The permanent population of turkey vultures along M Street has grown to more than 200 birds, a number that doubles during the fall migration, city officials said.

One local wag suggested that the birds' population may have boomed as hot-rodding students at the nearby junior college flattened ever more squirrels and rabbits on nearby roads.

Regardless, residents along M and neighboring streets have increasingly complained that the birds defecate, regurgitate food and shed feathers over their homes, cars and yards.

"It's like living in a chicken coop," said Bruce Douglass. "The droppings can be a couple inches deep and the feathers are so thick it's like we have feather roofs."

Added Douglass, an Air Force veteran: "We can't even use the backyard for barbecues. The smell is just overwhelming."

Lee Pevsner, Merced's director of housing and transportation, said the city decided to take action this week because several residents were losing the full enjoyment of their homes.

Beginning on Monday, Pevsner ordered some of his workers to M Street, where they launched booming and screeching pyrotechnics from guns resembling starter pistols. The vultures slowly spread their six-foot wingspans and flew off for a time, only to return later in the evening.

Some neighbors, schoolchildren and environmental activists hooted at the city employees. One picketer carried a sign demanding: "Relocate Lee Pevsner." But Pevsner said the city will not be dissuaded.

"We will have to continue on an uninterrupted basis. Our information is that with sustained discomfort, the birds will go elsewhere," Pevsner said.

Lydia Miller of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center in Merced said the city has bungled the vulture operation. She complained that the harassment of the birds began without any public discussion and without considering alternatives, like trimming the eucalyptus trees or sweeping the streets more frequently.

"It's a bad idea," Miller said, "and it's not going to work."

Indeed, some other efforts to trap and scare off turkey vultures have failed abysmally. Authorities in Leesburg, Va., spent six years this decade trying to uproot 1,000 turkey vultures. But air horns, fireworks, balloons and even a light cannon failed to dislodge the birds. When trappers baited a wire cage with carrion, dozens of vultures sat on top of the trap and crushed it.

"Those birds are tied to tradition and I imagine that they will find the same problem . . . no matter how much noise they make," said Bob Barnes, state director of bird conservation programs for the National Audubon Society.

For the fifth year in a row, the wildlife group plans a much more felicitous greeting for the big birds. The public is welcome to a series of meetings beginning this morning, with walks and talks about Cathartes aura, many originating at the society's Kern County preserve near Lake Isabella.

Included in the program is a visit Saturday to get "up close and personal" with a sampling of the birds as they are marked with identification bands. Thousands of other birds will fly near the preserve on their way south, in what the Audubon aficionados describe as a "stirring sight."

Over the weekend, the society will continue its annual count of turkey vultures, which last year totaled more than 25,000 in the narrow valley flyway through Kern County that is favored by the birds.

Turkey vultures are much more than just another denizen of the bottom of the food chain, the bird enthusiasts insist. Revered in some American Indian cultures, the vulture's scientific name refers to its skill as a "cleanser."

Researchers study the bird's digestive tract for clues on how to disable bacteria and viruses. The vultures can ingest the most virulent carcasses and produce waste that is free of pathogens.

Turkey vultures typically don't attack live domestic animals or humans. In fact, the head of the Reno-based Turkey Vulture Society tells of their apparent affinity for people. He recounts the story of a turkey vulture who liked to share walks with a California couple and, in Oklahoma, of a woman who fed the birds and then watched them bat a soccer ball around her yard.

"They are very smart and playful," said Bill Kohlmoos, president of the nonprofit scientific group. "Turkey vultures really are misunderstood."

Most of the Kern Valley Turkey Vulture Festival events begin at Audubon California's Kern River Preserve in Weldon, on California 178, 31 miles west of California 14.

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