ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hundreds of black vultures are wintering in the small Ozarks town of Eureka Springs, Ark. The birds are raising a big stink among certain locals and concern among federal wildlife agents. As Jacqueline Froelich of member station KUAF in Fayetteville reports, vulture enthusiasts are crying foul.
JACQUELINE FROELICH, BYLINE: Daniel Koob hikes into a steep wooded ravine below his house in Eureka Springs on a frigid afternoon. He stops at a big, dead sycamore tree. The ground beneath is white, and not from snow.
DANIEL KOOB: That's all vulture droppings. I mean, it's pretty rank.
FROELICH: Come nightfall, black vultures flock into this forest.
KOOB: At times, there will be 20 or 30 trees with 20 or 30 birds in them.
FROELICH: Their sheer weight has killed trees. The birds also caused a recent power outage. Black vulture populations, once decimated by the banned pesticide DDT, have fully recovered. They're found now in 28 states. Still, vultures are a protected species. Unless a lethal control permit is secured, residents can only scare them away with noise and lights. Vultures effigies, hung upside down, have also been tried at reservoir dam sites, a favorite black vulture hang out. It hasn't worked. Beth Withey lives next to the Eureka Springs vulture roost, and enjoys watching them communicate.
BETH WITHEY: Vultures are voiceless creatures. They'll hiss at each other and move each other around.
(SOUNDBITE OF VULTURE HISSING)
FROELICH: Black vultures also woof when disturbed, as you can hear in this audio provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
(SOUNDBITE OF VULTURE WOOF)
FROELICH: Common turkey vultures have bare, reddish-pink heads and brown feathers. Black vultures, which are expanding across the eastern half of the U.S., have sooty black plumage, frosted wingtips and white legs. Both raptors are excellent undertakers, consuming tons of roadkill and fallen wildlife. Michael Avery heads the National Wildlife Research Center for the U.S. Agriculture Department in Gainesville, Fla. He says black vultures are more aggressive.
MICHAEL AVERY: Turkey vultures are 99.9 percent scavengers. Black vultures, however, in certain situations, will attack and eat live animals.
FROELICH: Farmers can file avian predator claims under a livestock indemnity program. One dead calf can fetch more than $500. The frequency and extent of black vulture-caused mortality on livestock remain unknown. Retired Arkansas wildlife biologist Joe Neal believes black vultures get a bad rap. He says they can attack distressed animals, but are not built to kill.
JOE NEAL: Because they have weak feet. They don't have claws that allow them to hold living prey. And they have weak hooks on their bill, very much unlike hawks, eagles and owls that have tearing bills.
RON FLAKE: Ready?
FROELICH: To provide a point, farmer Ron Flake rides his four-wheeler through some hay fields along a limestone bluff to prime vulture habitat -craggy cedar and juniper trees. He walks to a ledge overlooking the Kings River and its turquoise, clear water.
FLAKE: This is where the air drafts go up, and this is their favorite spot.
FROELICH: Flake says black vultures number into the hundreds here. He's never seen the colony attack his cattle or heard of them being a nuisance at other farms.
FLAKE: I like having them around. They let you know if anything's in trouble. They're just part of nature.
FROELICH: Few people share this farmer's regard for buzzards. So as black vultures continue to increase in numbers, wildlife agents say they may have to take drastic measures to control them. For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Ark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.