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Unraveling the mystery of the black vultures

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NARROWSBURG, NY — Reading the recent article about black vultures brought a knowing smile to my face. No, this one is not a case for global warming [as was suggested in the article in The River Reporter last week], it is a case of opportunism. The story starts several years ago with a few of the black vultures that have lived and roosted amongst the flock of turkey vultures that return to Narrowsburg like clockwork every year around February 28. Black vultures are far more trusting of people than turkey vultures and will come into residential areas. As scavengers, they are always looking for a free meal and they found just the spot at the end of School Street where food was being put out for some feral cats. That is where I first saw them sitting boldly on the lawn waiting for cat food. Before long, the marauding pack decided that garbage bags could contain food scraps and soon they were tearing open garbage bags in the neighborhood. After watching them and seeing people try to chase them away, I decided it would be best for all involved to lure them farther up the street to my wooded back yard. Having worked with bald eagles for about 20 years and baiting them for banding and transmitters, it was easy for me to change their feeding habits to my “bird feeder.” 
About a dozen of the vultures have wintered in Narrowsburg, roosting near the old ball field and Catholic Church for the past several years. This fall nearly 50 congregated about the area before migrating south. Numerous people drove by this fall to photograph them, especially when they spread their wings in the morning to dry from the rain or night’s dew. Once again, the handful remained. When spring arrives and winter kill carcasses are uncovered by the snow melt, they will once again disperse to forage. And yes, like eagles, they do mate for life unless something happens to the mate. One dominant pair named Barclay and Bonnibel have remained close each year and by late summer they appear with their young, generally one chick with a few down feathers still on its head. This year they raised two chicks. 
Black vultures are very accepting of people and will sit very close to animals, such as dogs, with no fear. They are strictly scavengers, eating dead animals such as road kills and gut piles from hunters. Unlike hawks and owls they will not attack chickens, cats, dogs, or any other pets. They do not have talons to grasp anything, just strong beaks to tear apart carrion. Black birds, such as crows, ravens and vultures, have long been believed to be good luck and magical in many cultures. 
Sadly, in December two vultures were shot locally in separate incidents. One was shot with a rifle in Pennsylvania and was hanging out near a house for handouts for a couple weeks before she suddenly appeared at a residence on Bridge Street where I was called to recover her. With her badly damaged wing, she could not have flown across the river and it was hard to imagine her crossing the bridge. However, the mystery was solved when I spoke with someone who told me of seeing the vulture dragging her wing, dodging cars and miraculously making it across the bridge. The second injured bird was recovered from Hickory Lane with shotgun pellets in it. Both Jasmine and Leo, as they have been named, are at a rehabilitation/educational facility in Ithaca now. Vultures, like hawks, owls and eagles are federally protected birds, and it is illegal to harm or kill them. 
[Kathy Michell is a wildlife biologist.]

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