Like coyotes, vultures are newcomers to much of the Northeast. Turkey vultures were first spotted in New England in the '30s; black vultures in the '80s. Naturalists say the birds began moving northward after construction of the federal highway system, which created a thousand-mile road kill buffet straight up the East Coast. For a long time their numbers were small and until recently the gloomy creatures were seldom seen.
Even today, most locals have only seen vultures flying overhead. With wings spanning five or six feet, they can resemble graceful hawks and eagles when gliding on warm air currents. Up close, however, they're downright ugly, with beady, featherless heads, hooked beaks, tatty black feathers, and scrawny chicken feet. It's their habits, not their looks, however, that make them unwelcome: big birds drop big loads.
As executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Larry Taft is a defender of all wildlife, but even he admits vultures are a messy problem when they settle down close to people. "In a suburban neighborhood, I can see how they would become pests," he says. "With the things they eat, they need highly acidic digestive systems, so their droppings are highly acidic. They can damage shingles on roofs, and the paint on cars."
Of course, poop is a problem with other bird species as well. New Englanders have struggled with keeping Canada geese off lawns and out of swimming ponds since their numbers began soaring in the '80s. But North Enders insist that vultures are much worse. "A goose at least has personality," says Brian Champlain, who walks through the neighborhood every day. "With these guys, it's like having a registered sex offender move next door."
Vultures also have a unique self-defense habit: they vomit. And like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, they can aim. "It smells foul, and we find it everywhere," says Bouchard. "It's on the streets, on lawns. We have to be careful not to track it in the house."
Some in the neighborhood are pointing fingers at a trash transfer station located just across the Blackstone River in North Smithfield. Vultures are frequently seen roosting atop buildings at the facility.
Turkey vultures possess a keen sense of smell and can reportedly sniff out a dead mouse from hundreds of feet in the air. Black vultures don't have the same ability, so they often locate food by following their cousins and flocking with them. The theory is the birds are drawn to the Woonsocket area by the aroma of transfer station garbage. The nearby North End is on a hill, and roosting atop neighborhood homes makes it easier for the gliders to catch an air current when taking off.
That possibility has Bouchard and his neighbors contacting city and state officials about taking action against the Rhode Island company that runs the transfer station, Waste Haulers. The company did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Residents have also talked of investing in products known as "bird repellents," sold online at sites such as birdbgone.com. They include wires stretched across rooftops, to deliver a mild shock to anything that attempts to land, and electronic devices that emit a constant high-pitched sound that humans can't hear.