Turkey vultures prove problematic

November 4, 2015 by Caroline Ryan

From the look of Dodd House, there’s been some fowl play.
To many who have passed by the attractive white building this semester, some unusual debris has been visible on its exterior: feathers and bird droppings. The culprits? Turkey vultures, who have decided to make the roof of Dodd their home.
I first learned of the vultures’ existence this August, when I saw a Daily Message entitled “Dodd House Turkey Vultures.” This title immediately caught my attention, as did the message itself. It informed everyone of the installment of a misting unit on the roof of Dodd that emits a grape flavoring that irritates the birds and discourages them from roosting. The message noted, “There may be a slight grape odor in the air.” Also in August, the Williams College Facebook page posted several pictures of the yellow misting unit being installed, explaining that the birds would start to associate the grape smell with Dodd and the surrounding trees and roost elsewhere.
Coming back to school, I promptly forgot about the existence of the vultures and that one bemusing Daily Message. For residents of Dodd House, however, they are definitely a presence. As Dani Hernandez ’18 told me, “At some points you just walk out and there are 15 or 20 [vultures] flying above Dodd.” At other times, the only signs of them are the large feathers and muck they leave behind, “which Facilities does a great job cleaning up,” she added. Hernandez told me she was initially excited to see the birds, but after finding out they are a type of vulture she quickly lost her enthusiasm for them. The sight of the birds circling Dodd, reminiscent of vultures circling a carcass, is eerie enough to make me agree with Hernandez that the birds are definitely “not cute.”

Tim Nagle-McNaughton/Photo Editor. Facilities has undertaken a concerted effort to prevent turkey vultures from roosting in Dodd.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia. Facilities has undertaken a concerted effort to prevent turkey vultures from roosting in Dodd.

Dan Levering, the assistant director for custodial services and special functions, met with me to discuss what Facilities is doing to get rid of the vultures. From the level of knowledge Levering displayed in talking about the birds, I could immediately tell that this is an issue he has spent some time trying to address. As he told me, the birds have been roosting in the trees by Dodd for at least seven years. In the past few years, they have moved directly onto Dodd House and into the trees immediately alongside the building – an area where there is faculty housing as well as the student dorm. Aside from their slightly unsettling presence, the  birds leaves a mess that creates a potential for illness.
Since the turkey vultures are a protected bird, Facilities has faced the problem of trying to get rid of them without actually harming them: thus the nonlethal but annoying grape scent. As Levering told me, the flavoring is derived from Concord grapes and gardenias and works by irritating a specific gland in the birds’ sinuses, giving them a feeling akin to humans eating hot wings. This process can be a slow one, as the birds start associating the smell with the location over a long period of time, and right now they sometimes perch right next to the misting unit, seemingly in defiance of the attempt to drive them away.
However, it seems highly preferable to the other tried and true method of discouraging vultures from roosting. “Another proven technique that we haven’t employed is that you take a dead vulture and hang it by its foot,” Levering said. “You can actually buy dead frozen vultures for that purpose, but we’re not there yet. We’re just going to start with grape flavoring for now.” Imagining the reaction of Dodd residents coming back to their dorm to find a bird carcass ominously dangling above the roof, I have to agree.
Despite the difficulty their uncanny and messy presence has posed to Facilities, the turkeys have definitely become a campus topic of interest – and humor. Until the birds depart to fly south for winter, we will all have to just keep calm and carry on in their presence. As Louisa Abel ’18, the housing coordinator of Dodd, told me, “No harm, no fowl.”

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