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Vultures circling

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Black vultures have been in the news lately, thanks to a bit of upset in Eureka Springs over the damage to a man's roof. Since it was Eureka Springs, not only was there a complaint, there was also a counter love-offering: Another resident said she bought her home purposely near a roost because it presented "an opportunity to study" the birds.

But that article was followed up by another that called black vultures "an invasive species" and quoted a man whose expertise is in fishing and boating saying that the species should be "eradicated."

The Observer had so many "huhs?" reading the article it sounded like a locomotive was coming down Markham Street. Vultures as winged kudzu? Deserving of eradication?

Where The Observer is ineloquent, however, wildlife biologist Joe Neal, author of "Arkansas Birds: Their Distribution and Abundance" (UA Press), has a way with words. In the online birder listserv sponsored by the University of Arkansas, he wrote about the characterization of black vultures as invading body-snatchers and gave The Observer the OK to pass it on to the general reading public:

"Lately we've been reading articles in the daily paper about problems with Black Vultures in Arkansas. I don't know if we have reached Threat Level RED, but it's headed there. This is a divine truth for folks who consistently see all wild creatures as a threat to farmers and American Civilization, generally speaking.

"Last year it was the proposed listing of two bivalves that was going to end all farming in Arkansas. Then it was the attempt to control water pollution. Now Black Vultures (BVs), the black scare.

"First, a few actual facts: BVs are more native to Arkansas than people. Check out Arkansas Birds (pp 131-132). They've been here all along.

"My casual assessment is that BVs have probably increased in northern Arkansas. Since BVs have a more southerly range, increasing temperatures could be helping them move northward. This would seem to be supported by the Audubon data, that demonstrates the center of their winter abundance in the past 40 years has shifted northward by 52 miles.

"So what is the cause for this increase in temperature and range shift? Must be the BVs, right, with their Dodge Ram trucks and coal-fired power plants?

"Since BVs feed heavily on deer carcasses, and such carcasses have increased, I suspect this might help explain some of the population change and shift. But from reading the papers I'd have to assume BVs are killing deer and dragging their carcasses out on the highways where it is easier for a bunch of BVs to congregate.

"BVs also eat chickens — I guess they must be walking into the big chicken houses and draggin' 'em out, too.

"Another silly factoid oft repeated and wrong: BVs demonstrate some southward shift on the northern end of their breeding range in hard cold, but they otherwise do not migrate. Scare mongers do not distinguish between winter roosts and true migration. BVs do migrate, though there are almost always at least some present.

"And yes, when they run out of the deer, skunks, possums, armadillos, cats, dogs, hawks, owls and all the other stuff we kill on every roadway in Arkansas — yes, in addition, BVs have been known to attack cattle, including animals said to be alive at the time.

"BVs are always out in the hay fields after hay is cut. Do you suppose they are killing cattle out there? But I never see cows there. Could it be BVs are interested in the deer fawns, rabbits, snakes, foxes, etc., killed by the mowers?

"BVs: the new black face of menace. Too bad they're not red."

By the by, Arkansas has two vulture species. The turkey vulture, common all over the state, soars with its wings in a V. The black vulture is a clumsy thing, all flappy, and has pale white wing tips; turkey vultures are paler on the undersides of their wings. Up close, neither will win the Miss Arkansas pageant.

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