(ran NS, S editions of TAMPA BAY & STATE)
We've all had unwelcome houseguests, but few can top the experience of Evelyn and Chuck Artis. About 40 vultures are roosting on their roof.
"They were here last year, but there weren't as many and they weren't as destructive," Chuck Artis said Tuesday from his back yard in the Forest Lakes subdivision off Tampa Road.
The vultures, a federally protected species, showed up about a month ago and ever since, the Artises have been trying to give them the boot. Tuesday, the cavalry arrived. Wildlife officials brought noisemakers and tips on how to roust the birds from their roost.
"We've got to try to do something because they're destroying my house," said Mrs. Artis, clutching boxes of fireworks. "The smell back there is terrible!"
"Back there" is the Artises' lanai, where the vultures have torn the screen in several places and left their calling card: white streaks of guano that does not come off with normal scrubbing. The damage so far totals about $4,500, which Mrs. Artis says their insurance company will not pay.
The visitors are part of a flock of hundreds of turkey vultures and black vultures that are making their annual migratory pass through the area. Residents and wildlife experts say the scavengers, which can have wing spans greater than 5 feet, are here in greater numbers than usual.
The wildlife officials speculate that an unusually rough winter up North is part of the reason, and so is a recent kill of catfish in Tampa Bay.
But the experts have to guess what is so irresistible about the Artises' roof.
"Sometimes one bird just tries it out and other birds follow," said William Kern, an urban wildlife specialist with the University of Florida's Cooperative Extension Service.
The Artises' roof is one of the few white ones in their neighborhood, which may help explain the appeal, Kern said. Because vultures' excrement is white, often so, too, are their roosts.
Kern and another wildlife official, Paul Debow of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Tuesday brought the Artises "frightening devices" that explode, whistle, smoke and generally make noise.
"Basically, you're making it uncomfortable for them so they'll go away," Kern told the Artises.
Mrs. Artis, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, alerted Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland that there would be a ruckus. The mayor showed up for the fireworks. "We aren't killing the birds. . . . We're trying to protect this lady's property," he said.
The Artises are game for anything. During the weekend, Chuck Artis, a teacher at Dunedin High School, tied a string across their one-story roof and attached silver garland, Mylar balloons and streamers.
Their next-door neighbor also has a garland running across the top of his roof, and the Artises plan to share their arsenal of pyrotechnics with still another neighbor who is having trouble with the birds.
The Artises have lived in Forest Lakes for 12 years, but this is the first time the vultures have made such a nuisance of themselves. The couple was on vacation last year when neighbors sent the police to make sure they were all right because so many vultures were circling their house.
"It's good for the public to realize that wildlife has a negative side," said Debow, who works in the USDA's animal damage control division. "We all love to see animals. But any animal that gets into large enough numbers, they can be a pest."
Debow and Kern told the Artises to keep up with the scare tactics for at least four days. If that doesn't move the vultures, the last resort is getting a permit to kill two or three to deter the rest from returning.
Mrs. Artis is sensitive to animal rights. But she has a response for the apparent animal rights advocate who drove by the house Tuesday and yelled at the wildlife officers as they were firing an explosive from a shotgun.
"If somebody wants to pay for the damage to my house, they can," she said. "And they can take the vultures to their house."
Residents who have damage from vultures or other wildlife can report it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture at (904) 377-5556.