Dan Nedved is calling, and he's wondering if I'm interested in his problem.
“What's your problem, Dan?” I ask.
“Turkey vultures,” he says.
I have received phone calls about a great many topics, but never one regarding turkeys, or for that matter one regarding vultures.
A couple seconds of confused Googling later, I determine that a turkey vulture is in fact a real thing.
Dan says they live in his neighborhood trees. They moved in and now, like an old college buddy crashing in your spare bedroom, they will not leave.
“But what's the problem, Dan?” I ask again.
There is a slight pause, as if Dan can't quite believe there is still room for confusion.
“These things are ... gross,” he says finally. “These are maybe the most disgusting things I've ever seen.”
I'll be there soon, I say, and hang up the phone.
* * *
We stand in the rain as darkness closes in on a recent weeknight, and we stare up at an old gnarled tree planted long ago a few blocks north of 81st and Maple. To be more precise, we stare at the dozen or so turkey vultures sitting in the tree.
There is a flash of movement in the dusk, a flapping of wings, and a lone turkey vulture struggles into the sky. It is red-faced and gargantuan, with a wingspan maybe 6 feet across. After it gets airborne it makes one pass, then two, then three around the Nedveds' yard.
It is circling. It is circling directly above our heads.
“It feels like we're in the middle of a Hitchcock movie,” I say.
“That's the first thing I said!” Dan says. “That one movie, 'The Birds.' Like that.”
Dan Nedved's own personal psychological thriller began Friday, April 12th, when he and wife April Nedved came home after work. At some point in the evening April looked at the tree across the street.
She saw birds, giant birds, birds unlike any the Nedveds had ever seen since they moved into this neighborhood in 1985.
April Nedved went outside and started to count. She counted 27 turkey vultures.
At first the vultures seemed an exciting novelty, but the novelty quickly wore off, Dan says.
Every morning, they flutter and flap. Sometimes they land on the top of nearby rooftops and sun themselves. They take off during the day, but return every night to nest in the same tree. Turkey vultures do not have vocal chords, so turkey vultures do not squawk.
Turkey vultures hiss.
Dan researched the birds, and learned their diet mostly consists of carrion, which is a polite way of saying that they eat roadkill and other assorted dead animals.
He read more, and learned that turkey vultures produce droppings so potent that they can kill trees and permanently stain houses.
In fact, that problem has gotten so bad in Beatrice, Neb., that the City Council recently gave a tentative OK to a plan to shoo vultures off a cellphone tower in that town.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture expert is going to shoot nonlethal lasers at the vultures. That's right: Lasers.
Dan has no problem with lasers, lethal or otherwise.
“I mean, jeepers, they live on dead carcasses,” Dan says. “How clean can they be?”
Dan called Fontenelle Forest, and the naturalists there told him the vulture is no threat to him or others, and is, in fact, far cleaner than most people assume.
They also told him the turkey vulture is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means no shooting a gun or throwing a rock at the massive, red-headed creatures.
“Well, you wouldn't shoot a gun at them, anyway,” I say helpfully.
“I wouldn't?” Dan says.
Dan has tried standing beneath the tree and clapping, and that tends to rouse the turkey vultures from their perch. They always come back.
He has considered knocking blocks of wood together, or banging pots or pans, but he's a little worried about what the neighbors would think of that.
Maybe a starter pistol? Maybe a very loud cap gun?
“Do they even still make cap guns?” Dan wonders.
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Mostly, Dan has stood out here in the growing darkness, like we are right now.
Another turkey vulture swoops into the sky, and we stare up into the darkness and the rain as the bird makes long, lazy loops over our heads.
“There is something about these vultures,” Dan says. “Something about death.”
* * *
The next day I call Fontenelle Forest myself. I tell naturalist Elizabeth Chalen about the turkey vultures hanging out near Maple Street, and I list the various and highly scientific complaints against them: Dirty. Ugly. Gross.
She sighs loudly.
“They get such a bad rap,” she says.
Turkey vultures are relatively clean birds, she points out. They don't harbor any more diseases than other animals do.
And they actually perform a crucial function, one that a neighborhood should welcome, she says.
Just like the college buddy crashing at your house eats the week-old pizza, so, too, does the turkey vulture eat the decomposing dead animals sprinkled around an area.
They don't kill anything, and they don't tend to move a dead animal from one place to another.
Instead, they clean up what we don't want to.
“They are nature's recyclers,” she says. “Without them, we'd have a whole lot of carcasses rotting on the side of the road.”
The turkey vulture is actually a close cousin to the condor. Everyone loves the condor and wants to save it, but everyone hates the vulture and wants it go away, she says.
She has a theory about why.
“We have this innate fear of death, of ourselves. And the vulture is so blatantly out there eating dead things. They represent that to us, represent our own deaths.”
Then she delivers news that Dan will not be happy to hear. Flocks of turkey vultures are generally uncommon in Omaha neighborhoods, because of a lack of old trees. But when the vultures do find a tall tree to call home, sometimes they decide to stay for the entire summer.
It appears that Dan Nedved will have to grow comfortable with the angels of death that circle his home every night.
Either that, or he's going to need to go shopping. Maybe a nonlethal laser, Dan. Maybe a really loud cap gun.
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