It’s a brilliantly sunny October morning, the kind of day when you want to roll down your car windows and breathe in the fresh, crisp, early autumn air as you run some errands.
But as you make your way from the major thoroughfare, Delsea Drive, and en route to your destination, Violet Court, a street of nicely-cared-for homes all built within the last half dozen years, you turn onto Rodney Drive and there they are, staring you down.
Perched on top of the first roof of the first house on the right. They look like Halloween decorations, possibly.
But no, they surely weren’t placed up there on purpose, nor invited into the quiet-but-friendly suburban neighborhood. They are turkey vultures and they are the reason three people showed up to the most recent Deptford Township Council meeting.
“I have called so many (state) agencies,” said Sharyn Seccia, a homeowner on Violet Court. “At 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning I hear them marching on my roof, like an army.”
Angie Elfstrom, who also lives on Violet Court, estimates there are some 300 turkey vultures roosting daily on their small street.
“Sharyn has more than 50 to 100 birds all on top of her roof, eating at everything she has on top,” Elfstrom said. “Another neighbor has had to put in a new roof. … We all have a growing concern with the ability to live our lives. We have been held hostage, it feels like, because we can’t go outside. If we do go outside, we have to wash everything down.”
Wash everything down because, you can imagine, with that many birds roosting or flying or congregating daily in one small area, that’s an awful lot of bird feces. You can certainly understand the stress in their voices as they explain the problem to their mayor and councilmen.
And as you do your own investigating, reaching your destination on Violet Court, a cul-de-sac of 16 houses, you can see turkey vultures in the neighborhood clearly outnumber residents. As you exit your car with a camera in hand, to document the invaders, it becomes downright unnerving: dozens of large birds (the wingspans can be as much as six feet) are flying directly over your head.
Another couple dozen turkey vultures are resting in the dead tree behind the house to your left. It’s Hitchcock-ian.
“It’s every day,” said Kamuran Akgoz, who lives on Rodney Avenue and also attended the Deptford Township Council meeting with Seccia and Elfstrom. “Every day. Sometimes one of my neighbors uses a drum, or uses a paintball gun to try to scare them. But they come back.”
Back in the neighborhood, as they begin their morning commutes, more residents confirm the daily nuisance, saying it’s almost “like someone is throwing a party” up in their attic each day.
Mayor Paul Medany, a lifelong Deptford resident, understands the problem. He is doing his due diligence, researching for education on turkey vultures, making calls up state to the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Protection, taking time after council meetings to reassure taxpayers that he will do what he can to help.
But the almost-helpless sound in his voice is palpable. The birds are a protected species and one could argue turkey vultures have as much right to the land as anyone else.
“There aren’t enough woods for them to hide from people,” Medany said. “Now their habitat is being squeezed out like in every other suburban place in New Jersey. It’s a difficult situation. … As far as I know it’s OK to chase them away. But you can’t hurt them. We have quite a challenge on our hands here.”
Elfstrom, who moved into her home three years ago, basically feels like she can’t live her daily life. She has a newborn baby (nine months old) and she definitely does not feel comfortable having him play outside her own home.
“At six months he was able to use a walker and he’s been inside a lot,” Elfstrom said. “It’s a public health situation, it’s hazardous, they have bacteria, they have acid in their feces. I don’t want that harming my baby.”
As she spoke, Seccia held one of a handful of pieces of her roof that has fallen off as a result of the turkey vultures roosting on her home. She doesn’t feel comfortable letting her small dog outside, and she has trouble sleeping because she knows they’re arriving early every morning.
“I love animals,” she said, “but you know what, at this point I’m so disgusted I’d shoot every one of them birds. And I was told, ‘Don’t shoot them, don’t shoot them, you’ll go to jail.’ But it’s just so horrible.”
It’s also not an issue specific to one small residential street in Deptford. According to a story published by the National Audubon Society in 2008, aptly titled “Vultures Take Over Suburbia,” there has been an “impressive climb in numbers” of vultures in Northeast America in the last 30 years and Pennsylvania and New Jersey “have even seen the populations jump by a rate as much as three times the national average.”
Martin Lowney, a wildlife biologist quoted in that story, said suburbia is ideal for the vulture species. Another excerpt from the National Audubon Society story:
“‘The more you break up the habitat,’ says Lowney, ‘the happier these birds are.’ More roads equal more roadkill, more landfills, more McDonald’s dumpsters.”
In short, it’s much easier to find out how the turkey vultures arrived than it is to figure out how to get them to leave. It’s clearly stressing out Deptford residents, causing some to think about relocating and putting their homes up for sale.
Medany feels their pain.
He had one of his councilmen place a call last week to the Philadelphia Zoo to see if there was an animal expert who could offer some advice. He’s placing more calls to state representatives.
“At the end of the day, we want to help them,” Medany said of the residents at Violet Court and Rodney Avenue. “How that help comes will be the challenge.”