Articles by Barbara Johnson

A Bay Weekly conversation with writer, birder and ­educator Katie Fallon

       Ewww, vultures! How can you stand them?
      Katie Fallon, who finds lots to love about those bare-headed carrion-eaters that so many find fearsome and disgusting, has heard it all before. Fallon is a vulture advocate and in the business of changing minds. So she hopes her March 21 audience at Quiet Waters Park will leave with a new appreciation for the birds and the role these fabulous flyers play in our ecosystem.
       Writer, birder, educator and parent, Fallon gives the first John W. ‘Bud’ Taylor Wildlife Lecture, hosted by the Anne Arundel Bird Club to honor the beloved naturalist and artist, who died last year.
       Fallon’s love of vultures goes deep. She cofounded the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, which annually treats more than 300 injured birds, including turkey vultures and black vultures. Now she’s written the definitive book — Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird — on vulture life, love and parenthood, with the latest science on these common but misunderstood creatures. 
       Here’s a preview of what to expect at her lecture.
 
Bay Weekly Your first book, Cerulean Blues, was about a tiny, beautiful, elusive and threatened bird, the cerulean warbler. Your new book is about a large, ubiquitous bird that few could find handsome. Your new book’s title calls them “unloved.” Why? 
Katie Fallon I, of course, love them, and a lot of people do. But if someone calls you a vulture, it’s not a compliment. Vultures in cartoons are always the bad guys, and if someone is greedy or underhanded, they’re often called a vulture. People find their eating habits disgusting, but that doesn’t make sense to me; it’s not as if humans eat live prey. I wanted to write something that showed their “disgusting” habits in a un-disgusting way. 
         Vultures do a really important job of cleaning up all of our dead stuff, and they’re super efficient. They can very quickly remove dangerous pathogens from our ecosystem. Between the acid in their stomachs — which has a pH approaching battery acid — and the powerful bacteria in their guts, their digestive systems destroy anthrax, botulism toxins and cholera. They completely neutralize anything dangerous in an animal carcass.
 
Bay Weekly Two species of vultures are common in the U.S. Why did your book focus on turkey vultures? 
Katie Fallon I like black vultures, but when I started writing about vultures around 15 years ago, I didn’t see many black vultures in West Virginia. Turkey vultures were all over the place and came into rehab much more often, so I was more familiar with them. Black vultures have been moving north and are now more common. A non-releasable black vulture named Maverick lives at the rehab center, and he’s very outgoing. My kids, 3 and 5, are able to feed him by hand. He never bites. He has a neat personality that’s totally different from the turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are, in general, more timid. 
 
Bay Weekly Why do black and turkey vultures hang out together? 
Katie Fallon They’re both social, and they both like to be where there’s a reliable source of carrion: near roads. They both seek good winds so they don’t have to spend valuable energy flapping. Black vultures will often follow turkey vultures to food because they don’t have the excellent sense of smell that turkey vultures use to find carrion. 
 
Bay Weekly Why have black vulture numbers increased? 
Katie Fallon I think climate change is definitely a reason. Both turkey and black vultures probably originated in the tropics. As the world gets warmer, it keeps road-killed animals from freezing. We have more cars and roads than we used to, so more animals are killed. Black vultures tend to roost in urban areas, where the pavement creates heat islands. Ranchers used to blame vultures for spreading diseases among cattle, and the birds were killed in huge numbers. Now we know that the opposite is true. And now vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 
 
Bay Weekly What are other misconceptions about vultures?
Katie Fallon Turkey vultures are often accused of killing pets and livestock. While black vultures occasionally kill weak and dying animals by pecking, turkey vultures do not. Both vultures have big, flat chicken feet incapable of grasping. People will say, I saw a turkey vulture carrying off my neighbor’s cat. That’s biologically impossible. But they get blamed for that kind of stuff a lot. 
 
Bay Weekly When people want to repel vultures — could you talk about that?
Katie Fallon Some people want to get rid of their vultures. I can’t understand why (laughs). Vultures like to roost on communication and water towers, and the droppings are pretty acidic and can damage equipment. To get them to move somewhere else, sometimes hanging balloons will work. A town in Virginia hung an inflatable killer whale on their water tower, which apparently deterred their vultures. Vultures don’t like sprinklers. Flare guns and fireworks sometimes work to make them relocate. But often if you scare away one group, another may come in to that same good spot. In the fall and winter, vultures roost together, but it’s not a permanent settlement. In the spring and summer they’re busy raising young. 
 
Bay Weekly You write that our turkey and black vultures are doing well, but vultures in other parts of the world are in trouble. 
Katie Fallon Yes. Asia and Africa have many vulture species adapted to eating the large animals there. In Africa, herdsmen will poison the carcasses of cattle, with the intention to kill predators that might threaten the living livestock. Vultures will die as unintended targets. Also, people who poach elephants or rhinos will often poison the carcass after they leave it, so that when vultures land and eat they die instead of congregating in the sky and alerting authorities to the poached animal. There are cases of 70 vultures dying on one poisoned carcass. 
 
Bay Weekly How can we help ­vultures?
Katie Fallon Don’t buy ivory. Notice vultures, learn about them and appreciate them. Don’t hate them! Vultures are a good introduction to birdwatching. They’re big, easy to identify and they group up in impressive numbers. Go to a vulture festival and spend money there. There are several vulture festivals across the country.
 
 
Wednesday, March 21, 7-9pm, Quiet Waters Park Blue Heron Center, Annapolis, refreshments served: 410-222-1777: $5 suggested donation w/books available for purchase and signing.

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