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Giant black vultures besiege a small Pa. town. Killing them is illegal. Now what?

As many as 20 black vultures might sit on a single roof, tearing off shingles, picking at rubber for hours, and leaving fresh coatings of acidic, white feces.

Some of the vultures that have taken over the Lancaster County town of Marietta roost In the trees on the 200 block of West Market Street, Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
Some of the vultures that have taken over the Lancaster County town of Marietta roost In the trees on the 200 block of West Market Street, Wednesday, December 9, 2020.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

MARIETTA, Pa. — Black vultures circled beneath a leaden sky, swooping down close to the tombstones in a cemetery here in search of something dead to eat.

Classic horror imagery aside, a big bird in the air is better than one on the roof for homeowners in this quaint town of 2,607 on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. In Marietta’s case, it’s usually 10 to 20 vultures on the roof, tearing off shingles, picking at rubber for hours, and leaving fresh coatings of their acidic, white feces behind when they fly off.

Experts call that “whitewash.”

“This is like Edgar Allan Poe stuff right here,” Councilman Louis McKinney said by the cemetery on Fairview Avenue last Wednesday afternoon.

No one’s quite sure why the vultures, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, have chosen to converge on Marietta. Like their slightly larger turkey vulture cousins, black vultures are native to Pennsylvania, and residents said they’ve always been seen in summer months, soaring high above the river. What they lack in beauty, they make up for in resourcefulness, playing an important part in the ecosystem by eating carrion and roadkill.

In recent years, though, the vultures have moved inland once the frosts become consistent in late autumn. They roost in pine trees and line up on warm rooftops, spreading their wings — with spans of five feet — to soak up the sun. Residents say this year is worse than ever, an issue first reported by Lancaster Online earlier this month. One homeowner on West Market Street who asked not to be identified said she’s spent several thousand dollars repairing damage the vultures have caused to her roof.

“My insurance company doesn’t cover ‘act of vulture,’” she said.

John Enterline, 67, owns a stately colonial across the street, all decked out for the holidays — with a Halloween twist, thanks to the vultures that converge by his chimney. He said neighbors often bang pots and pans to scare them off, or light firecrackers. One recent day, someone on West Market upped the pyrotechnic ante.

“There was like this huge boom. It rattled the window,” Enterline said. “They all took off. It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.”

On trash days, the vultures swoop down into the street, topple cans, and make a mess. Weighing up to six pounds, they’re no sparrows, and they’re always defecating.

“If you’re walking down the street and they’re on a dead squirrel or something, you cross the street. You’re scared to walk by them,” said Jade Brumfield, 29, whose mother-in-law has taken to whacking her trees with a broom to chase the scavengers.

West Market resident Tina Grumm has considered spikes on her roof, or a fake owl with a moving head. Adult black vultures have no natural enemies in nature, though.

The motto is “harass, not harm,” said Harris Glass, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in Pennsylvania. Federal law dating back a century protects black vultures because they are considered endangered, he said, and authorities tend to make an example out of anyone who kills one with punishments including fines and possible jail sentences. Municipalities and landowners can seek out depredation permits, allowing them to legally kill a vulture, but no agency is going to remove whole roosts.

There are a slew of somewhat effective tactics to scare the birds off — from such simple things as fireworks to truly bizarre approaches like frozen vulture carcasses or taxidermied black vultures hung upside down in areas where they roost. Some people have tried the plastic vultures found in Halloween stores.

The vulture effigy, in essence, gives off bad vibes for the rest of the roost and they tend to stay away. Harris said the tactic was stumbled upon in Texas when a vulture, fried by power lines, happened to get tangled up and hung in place. The other vultures causing the power company problems didn’t come back. But vultures can wise up.

“Eventually, they will try to eat the carcass,” he said.

Glass said you have to commit to harassing vultures, sometimes for a few weeks. He recalled a town in Northern Virginia that reached out for help to deal with vultures roosting at a cemetery. Police there fired off pyrotechnics for a few days, and the vultures left.

“But then they flew, I kid you not, to the mayor’s house and converged there,” Glass said. “There were so many in the pine trees, they were actually breaking the branches.”

In Marietta on a recent weekday, the vultures gathered in pine trees, too, their dark forms often blending into the branches. Some of them were turkey vultures, which aren’t as destructive. The bases of those pines were covered in a white dust. It wasn’t snow.

“It’s gross. It smells like a barn,” said Liz Garner, a Northeast Philadelphia native whose property is home to a roost.

Councilman McKinney said that the whole situation has “gotten out of hand” and that the invaders were a hot topic during a recent council meeting held by Zoom. He hasn’t had vultures at his house, but he empathizes with homeowners who hear them clawing at their roofs all day.

“We have to find something, find a way,” he said.

In the meantime, as besieged resident Grumm summed it up, “The vultures are winning.”