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Vultures roost in Pa. woman's carriage shed

July 21, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

GREENCASTLE, PA. - It could be a horror movie set - a dark, dirty, decrepit old barn. Creaky steps lead to the second floor. A loud, eerie hissing sound is coming from a dark corner.

Jim Beard was checking out the old carriage shed behind Betina's Breise, his wife Betina's gift shop at 628 E. Baltimore St. She was thinking of turning the second floor into a Christmas shop.

"Jim got his big flashlight, shined it in the corner and saw a pair of baby vultures," Betina Beard said. "That was about three weeks ago. They've doubled in size since then."

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Kim Van Fleet, a biologist with Pennsylvania Audubon in Harrisburg, Pa., said vultures rarely nest anywhere near humans. Less than 2 percent do so, she said.

It's so rare, she said Tuesday, that she's driving to Greencastle today to check the chicks out for herself. She also wants to know if they are turkey or black vultures. She was unable to tell from a photo sent to her by the newspaper. Both species, which are similar in size and looks, are common in this area.

Turkey vultures, the slightly larger cousin, have wingspans up to 6 feet. They have bald red heads and gray feathers under their wings. They also tend to be more solitary than black vultures, Van Fleet said.

Black vultures are slightly smaller, with wingspans running 5 feet or more. Their bald heads are gray and the tips of the undersides of their wings are white, she said.

Vultures are slower to develop than most birds, Van Fleet said. They have to be about 80 days old to fly.

Right now the chicks look like big bundles of white fluff, their bodies still covered with down. They're anything but cute.

Sometimes they hobble over to a side door of the carriage house to look out, Betina Beard said. Their mother soars close by but never comes in if there are people around, she said. She roosts in a tall, dead tree in the yard.

Beard said the family is welcome to stay as long as it likes.

"I think they're fascinating," she said.

Vultures don't build much of a nest and nearly always build them on cliffs. They just scrape out a spot and lay their eggs, normally two a year, Van Fleet said. The incubation period is 38 to 39 days, she said.

Vultures are altricial, meaning they are born without feathers or down, are totally dependent on their parents and remain confined to the nest until they are old enough to fly.

Waterfowl and poultry are precocial, Van Fleet said, meaning they are born with down and can care for themselves immediately upon hatching.

Vultures find their food, always carrion, through their excellent sense of smell rather than with their eyes, she said.

They also are wary and road smart.

"You see two or three vultures sitting on a fence over a carcass along the road watching for cars," she said.

Vultures have a life span of more than 17 years, she said.

They also are necessary to ecological balance, Van Fleet said.

"They eat anything that's dead. The riper the better. We'd be in a mess of dead things without them. They're great at cleaning up the environment," she said. "They're not pretty, but they're functional."

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