You see the scene over and over in the B-grade Western. The cowboy hero wanders across a desert, praying he'll find a watering hole. Above him appears a dismal omen — vultures circling in the sky.
Woonsocket is a long way from Death Valley, but these days the locals have good reason to feel simpatico with that lonesome cinema cowpoke. The city's North End has become a seasonal home to several hundred turkey vultures and black vultures, creatures rarely seen in New England until recent decades.
From November until mid-April, the winged scavengers roost on rooftops, nosh on dead skunks, and bomb cars with super-sized droppings. When spring arrives they disperse to mate and build nests in woods all over New England, only to return again as winter approaches. Now, however, there's talk of making this year's impending goodbye permanent. In the North End, one of the sagging mill city's few upscale neighborhoods, residents are preparing to ask federal authorities to end the infestation, and by any means necessary.
"The key to this will be finding out where they go at night, and destroying them while they sleep," says Bob Bouchard, who can often count a dozen winged scavengers atop his quaint colonial on Winter Court. "A few years ago seeing a vulture near your house was a novelty, but their numbers have exploded. It's a public health issue — they're leaving stuff in ball fields and schoolyards, places where kids play."
Getting rid of the feathered ghouls won't be easy. The federal government has labeled both turkey vultures and black vultures protected species, and harming the birds can mean stiff penalties, regardless of how disgusting they are. Back in the '90s the feds slapped Florida's Disney World with a $95,000 fine after employees allegedly killed vultures that swarmed a pirate attraction known as Discovery Island. Eventually the theme park's staff gave up and made Discovery Island a no-go zone.
Peggy Labonte, of the US Division of Fish and Wildlife's regional office in Hadley, Massachusetts, says Woonsocket residents — or the city — could apply for what is called a "depredation permit," but full-scale extermination of the birds is out of the question. "A permit does not give someone carte blanche to kill as many as they like," she says. "You can shoot one and hang it in effigy. That will usually scare the others away. But as soon as that carcass decomposes and you bury it, they come back. You have to keep up the hazing and harassment."
A vulture baby boom is apparently underway, because Labonte says permit requests are on the rise all over the Northeast. What's more, she empathizes with those who see their rising population as a Hitchcockian plague.
"Vultures are nasty," she says. "A poor cow will be having a baby, and they'll be going after the calf before it's halfway born. We heard from one woman who said they tore a new roof off her house. They just ripped at the shingles. When they loaf around with nothing to do, they destroy things."