Diana Donaghy, wildlife biologist, removes her sunglasses and gazes at the vultures of Myakka River State Park. Soaring like majestic kites, the vultures land on the highest limbs of the oak trees and look around like fat men at a barbecue. • They're waiting for an opportunity to quench appetites with something scrumptiously dead. Nature's cleanup crew, the large black birds sanitize and destink Florida roads, pastures and tourist-infested parks. At least that's what the federally protected creatures are supposed to do. • But nature is complicated, no more so than when it bumps up against 21st century Florida, where Homo sapiens shares space with hungry prehistoric birds with 5-foot wingspans and unspeakable appetites. Remember when vultures dined on roadkill skunks and possums? Park in the wrong place today — say, a remote lot near a vulture roost — and the family sedan may be on the menu.
Yes, vultures want to nibble the rubber wipers on your prized Chevy Blazer — maybe for nutrition but most likely just for the heck of it. They salivate at the thought of munching the window seals on your Plymouth Voyager. Don't look now, but your V-8 Mustang's expensive vinyl roof might look like a black bean pancake to the flock of vultures overhead. Nobody has seen them sampling the big tasty doughnuts known as tires. But give them time.
In college, Donaghy never took a science course on "scaring vultures.'' But putting the fear of God into the occasional hungry buzzard is now part of the job at wilderness parks throughout the state. Tourists watch as employees advance on parking lot vultures with noisy leaf blowers. At some places, park rangers have declared war by blasting small, unloaded cannons.
A Draconian weapon, almost too gross to describe, plays a role in some park armories. Maybe after breakfast we'll explain the new "scared straight" strategy aimed at vultures eyeing your new Prius.
Donaghy leads the way through tall grass, thorny thickets and a grove of dung-stained oak trees. "There's a big roost here,'' says Donaghy, a willowy blond with blue eyes and a gentle voice. About 500 vultures consider the oak hammock home. It's near a road and the park's main picnic area. It's conveniently close to a lot used by snowbirds and their tempting cars.
"We don't want to hurt vultures,'' Donaghy says, ignoring the dead-critter perfume wafting under the trees, "but we want to encourage them to find a roost that's far from the parking lot.''
Nobody knows precisely when or why rubber car parts became Cheetos to vultures. But once they learn to nibble, experts say, they tend to come back for another taste.
About a decade ago, the telephone in Dr. Michael Avery's office in Gainesville started ringing. Callers wanted help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's resident vulture expert.
Some vultures, Avery explained, live in Florida all year. The population explodes in the fall. That's when vultures migrate from the Ohio valley and the Atlantic seaboard to take advantage of the warmer weather, food supply and the opportunity to find a mate.
Turkey vultures, known for their featherless red heads and acute sense of smell, are the most common. Seen less often are the smaller yet stockier black vultures. Both species are found throughout the state.
But Avery couldn't tell callers why vultures suddenly seemed to have a hankering for their Nissans' windshield wipers. That was a new one.
"We were intrigued by it,'' Avery says now. "But we didn't know what was going on. The vultures weren't necessarily eating the soft material. Sometimes they just tore it apart. They were also messing with roof shingles, cushions on boats and tractors, screens, pool covers and the rubber on cars. It was all very interesting.''
USDA employees collected car rubber for analysis. Perhaps scientists in white smocks might learn that windshield wiper material contains a chemical that smells like a rotting armadillo. Perhaps the rubber gasket lining car windows was shouting "dead mullet here" to a sky full of vultures.
"We did try a few experiments with captive birds,'' Avery says. "We soaked one sponge with distilled water and one sponge with a volatile chemical and placed them both in the cage with the vultures. The vultures did seem to spend more time near the sponge soaked with the chemical. But we really weren't able to conclude anything.
"Obviously, vultures must be getting something out of this behavior. They might be practicing biting and tearing. It might be part of a maturation process. But the bottom line is we really don't know why vultures are doing this.''
In Everglades National Park, visitors are warned about the presence of car-munching vultures, advised to park away from trees and to cover their vehicles with canvas tarps. Regular visitors have learned to drape their cars with plastic bags that flap disconcertingly in the wind.
But like squirrels that figure out bird feeders and cats that wait for their owners to leave the room before clawing the furniture, vultures are crafty. They soar on the afternoon thermals, they play loop-de-loop with other vultures, they bide their time. Sooner or later, somebody is going to park a car under the tree.
Federal law prohibits the killing of migrating birds, even car-eating vultures.
• • •
Diana Donaghy always has loved animals. She keeps a photo of her dog next to her computer and a picture of a panther on her wall. A former travel agent, she decided to become a biologist after watching a television documentary about red wolves. She dreamed of working with endangered animals.
She has done that during the last decade. She also conducts wetland surveys, manages flora and enjoys seeing bald eagles, alligators and bobcats. She identifies rat snakes for curious tourists and moves pokey turtles off the road, even if they urinate on her when picked up.
She has never touched a vulture. They're big, rawboned birds that bite, scratch and tend to smell like their last meal. Turkey vultures, Donaghy notes, also boast what may be nature's most effective defense mechanism:
Not long ago, she headed to the lake for a water quality survey. She removed her kayak from the trailer and paddled out among the lily pads to do her work. While she was gone, the vultures stripped the rubber from the trailer. They didn't eat it all. Some they flung defiantly to the ground.
"It's hard to know what's going on with them,'' Donaghy says. "Maybe they're just like juvenile delinquents getting into mischief.''
• • •
In the morning, and on some afternoons, park employees bring out the cannon. It's powered by propane, weighs about 25 pounds and is easily carried by one person, who sets it up in the parking lot near the vulture roost, turns a nozzle and covers his ears.
No need for a cannonball. The earth trembles.
If a vulture is eating your car, it leaves. If a vulture is perched in a nearby tree and hoping to sample your car, it flies the heck out of there, if only for a while.
"We don't use the cannon every day,'' Donaghy says. "And we don't use it at the same time. The idea is to keep the vultures off balance. If something begins to get routine, they lose their fear.''
Donaghy has yet to employ the atomic bomb of vulture weaponry, even though the smart boys at the USDA guarantee it will work.
It involves harvesting a dead vulture from the nearest road and hanging it upside down from a tree in the roosting area. "We've been told it will freak them out,'' the park biologist says. "Usually they abandon the roosting area.''
Of course, handling a dead vulture — stinking in life and unspeakably putrid after breathing its last — might freak out a park biologist as well.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.