EH Out Loud
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
Season 1, Episode 1: Hudson Valley Vultures
We learn about the vultures on Bard’s campus with the help of some Bard students, staff, and faculty.
Voice: Experimental Humanities
Krista Caballero: Hi and welcome to EH Outloud. I’m Krista Caballero, the associate director here at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human. For our inaugural series, we’re bringing you Vulture Season. Our research into vultures began last winter when I led a working group of six students who all brought a range of artistic abilities, technical skills, and research interests to the table. Our experiments across media focused on the messy and often surprising links between human, ecological, and technological landscapes. And in particular, we explored these connections through looking at vultures as an indicator species. As a clean up crew that doesn’t always get enough credit, vultures provide a window into shifting habitats and also the messiness of interspecies relationships. Historically, the range of black and turkey vultures didn’t extend this far north. We wanted to know, why are they showing up in the Hudson Valley in such numbers, and why do they flock to our campus. That led to more complicated questions, mainly how do we interact with our more than human surroundings in the digital age? Throughout the podcast, you’ll hear a course of voices from across campus and beyond. From people who are thinking about vultures either at the center of their research or from a particular perspective. Today, we’re starting in the Hudson Valley and right here at Bard College to explore local ecologies and the birds around us. We got into this studio with written arts professor and avid birder Susan Fox Rogers who gave us a handle on distinguishing the two types of local vultures that have migrated here; black vultures and turkey vultures.
Susan Fox Rogers: The real difference is the turkey vulture flies and it will have these wobbly moments and the way it was told to me when I started birding was, they fly like they’re drunk, they sort of stumble a little bit. And one of my favorite writers, Florence Merriam Bailey who wrote at the turn of the century and into the forties and fifties; the way she describes it is, it’s like a cork on water, which is a great image as well. So, if you just watch a turkey vulture for a little while you’ll see that they do this like little shimmy in the air, you know and the black vulture doesn’t do that.
Krista Caballero: We also talked to field biologist Erik Kiviat, the executive director of Hudsonia, a non-profit environmental research institute that runs out of the field station here at Bard. Erik has been doing ecological research in the area for over 50 years and although vultures aren’t his area of expertise, he shared some of his knowledge about their history in the area.
Erik Kiviat: Turkey vultures first became regularly seen in Dutchess County in the 1960’s, I think the early 1960’s, so that was probably just before I started spending a lot of time watching birds and doing other nature studies. The black vultures didn’t become regularly seen here until the early 1990’s so these two species which happen to sometimes associate when they’re roosting and perhaps when they’re sharing a dead deer on the road or something like that, actually moved northward from the southeastern US thirty years apart, roughly. And, now they’re both very common here and they both breed here, although the nesting behavior isn’t very well studied, it’s hard to find vulture nests despite how big the birds are and you know, how conspicuous they are. And they do sometimes form these collective roosts such as the one at Bard that you are so interested in. And this— you know vultures sometimes roost in trees, they sometimes roost on buildings. I remember, in about 1978 or ‘79 attending a conference in Georgia, and going on a conference field trip to the Savannah River lab site, which is on the South Carolina/Georgia border. And it’s a large reserve where a lot of research on nuclear materials was done and I think is still being done. And at the time there was a large inactive nuclear- it wasn’t a nuclear reactor facility I don’t think it was a power plant. And of course we were being driven around in a bus and you know, told not to take photographs because it was a quasi-military facility. And everyone jumped out of the bus at one point to look at a lot of vultures standing on the roof of this you know, dead, not quite abandoned nuclear facility, and it was a flat area and this is a huge building and it was kind of eerie to see the vultures hanging out on top of this building which over the years, either this building or other facilities at the Savannah River lab had leaked a lot of plutonium and other radionuclides into the environment, and that’s one of the reasons why so much research has been done there because the fate of those materials in ecosystems is very interesting. And scary, but also very important to understand. So that was one of my experiences with vultures.
Krista Caballero: Just like Erik was fascinated by the vultures he saw at the lab site years ago, there’s really an intrigue around the vultures here at Bard. We talked to so many people who had stories to share, some based on observation, but a lot based on lore. That was another thing we noticed; it was impossible to disentangle the bird from the myth. Here’s a story about the vultures that congregate around Bard’s compost heap from ornithologist and Bard professor, Bruce Robertson— who you’ll hear more from in a later episode. It helps to know the buildings and grounds crew has attempted to deter vultures by putting up a net over the compost.
Bruce Robertson: I heard the vultures actually help each other under the net, like lift the net for each other.
Krista Caballero: Oh, I haven’t seen that.
Bruce Robertson: Yeah, I think there’s a— There’s a vulture on campus that kind of has a broken wing. I can’t remember, they have a name, the B+G guys have a name for him, I think he’s called Hoppy or something else, maybe like Steve, but like he can’t fly, and so it might be a she as well, you can’t really sex birds easily. So, but, I heard- they told, someone told me that they actually, the other vultures will lift up the net and so Hoppy gets to go under and they actually come by and feed Hoppy, ‘cause like, he can’t feed himself.
Krista Caballero: Bard students also have lots of stories and associations around the vultures. One of our Media Corps students, Ariel, interviewed her friend Alex at the compost pile where the campus vultures hang out.
Ariel West: Um, have you ever been to the dump?
Alex Hardy: Yeah, many times.
Ariel West: Why do you come here?
Alex Hardy: Um, I came here my freshman year just to kind of explore. Because I was like, where– I had heard that the vultures all congregated here. Um, oh, they’re all flying away.
Ariel West: Woah.
Alex Hardy: Um, and then I did some photo stuff here. I think, I was, like, every other photo student has. Um, and then I helped my friend Zeke out with a project for this sculpture class he had, where we put a bunch of meat we bought from Hannafords on there and filmed them. He, like, put a table on the pile of compost and covered it in meat and then just had the class come and watch, but all the meat was gone by the class, by the time the class got there. I was also going to do my CitSci project here, but they, the school didn’t let me. Because-
Ariel West: Why?
Alex Hardy: We had a– I don’t know if you guys had this project, where we had to like, swab something and see how much bacteria it had?
Ariel West: Yes.
Alex Hardy: Yeah, so I was just gonna leave some meat out and do a before and after. You know, just get some deli ham or something like that.
Ariel West: What happened?
Alex Hardy: They didn’t let me do it. I ended up– I came here and brought them some sweet ham.
Krista Caballero: Beyond the lore, there’s a real issue with having vultures on campus. Although they play a crucial ecological role, they do cause a huge amount of damage to the buildings. Laurie Husted, Bard’s chief sustainability officer, broke it down for us.
Laurie Husted: Right, of course. So the issues that we’ve been having are mostly related to the fact that they seem to like to peck the roof of our athletic center. So these birds are for some reason, destroying the roof membrane of our athletic center in particular. And I’ve read in other places that it might be tearing the blades off windshield wipers on cars, I don’t think we’ve seen that or no one has connected the dots back and put in a vulture complaint about that for their car damage. But we see– since 2015 have spent about 30 to 50 thousand dollars repairing the roof of the athletic center. And so, that’s where it becomes an issue for the college with coexisting with the, with the species.
Krista Caballero: She also told us about some of the ways the college has been trying to deter them.
Laurie Husted: We have been trying to deter the vultures with light and sound and motion. We’ve tried a number of different experiments, from sparkly rotating mirrors, oh, we had a pest control group come in and maintain those quarterly. We’ve tried sound deterrence, whether that’s you know, a bit of an explosive sound, yep, intermittently applied.
Krista Caballero: Over the gym?
Laurie Husted: Uh, we do that mostly at the recycle yard. Yeah
Krista Caballero: What kind of explosive sound?
Laurie Husted: Yeah, and I’m not sure whether that’s a firecracker, sort of the homegrown solution, as opposed to the pest control company, who had the official rotating mirrors on the roof. We have also bought faked, fake vultures, stuffed vultures to create effigies, which is apparently a deterrent, and worked for a while and then we have photos of them now sitting alongside the stuffed animal vulture. We did believe it or not, go through the USDA and the Fish and Wildlife Service to get a permit to euthanize a vulture, with the idea of using them as a more real life effigy. And I don’t think we ever– we got the permit, but we never did it. We never euthanized a bird. But it was one of the federal government’s options for us. In addition to considering, we thought we might be able to consider relocation, but that doesn’t seem like a long term solution when the climate is driving them into our, into our region.
Krista Caballero: You’ll notice that Laurie used the word “effigy” a few times. It’s such an evocative word, often associated with sacred and political symbols, that we wanted to ask her if there’s a reason for using it.
Laurie Husted: I think that came from the government language. And sort of, what are the things we are allowing you to do to respond to this. And so, yeah, not a Bard thing, but a, that’s the government language, yeah. I did leave off a deterrent method— can I add one more? So our most recent experiment, because these birds get used to things, with flashing mirrors and sound, we have, we have bought the, what we call “tube men” so those fluorescent orange inflatable wiggly plastic creations that you might see at a used car lot. And they, the idea there is that they’re on a timer, motion sensor, so that they’re not always going, and waving their arms in the air, and the vultures don’t get used to them. They go on when a bird lands nearby and scares them away. So we’ll see if that has a long term deterrent effect to keep them off the, off the roofs.
Krista Caballero: We should also mention that in their effort to deter the vultures on campus, our buildings and grounds crew has been keeping a log full of great notes and images which we’re posting in the show notes. We’ve also got links to the projects that students created in our EH Winter Working Group, some even made virtual reality installations of the deterrents Laurie mentioned. Of course the conversation about vultures is complicated. Even though we need to deter them on campus, there’s a really clear and necessary role they play. Here’s what our guests had to say.
Laurie Husted: So why we want vultures on campus. Uh, is the role they play in the ecosystem is really valuable, right? They– if something dies, they are, whether it’s freshly rotted or not, they’re there to eat it and you know, return things to nature. They can eat things that have toxins and parasites and prevent other things from getting sick, and transmission to humans, so they play a really important role in our ecosystem. I just think we’re in the against column, we don’t know what happens when we get larger quantities of them.
Bruce: I think everybody’s first impression is that they’re so ugly. They’re kind of the ugly ducklings of the, of the bird world, they get, they don’t get appreciated at all you know. And in fact, so for me, I think that it’s this— there’s a beauty in what they do, they, they take care, they prevent us from getting sick, by cleaning things up, and it’s really only become— it’s become really clear with the massive declines in vultures that have taken place in the Middle East due to the accidental poisoning of them that have illustrated how much we’re protected by them all the time. And so I think of them as these kind of like ugly duckling allies of myself who just really need to be loved much more than they are.
Susan Fox Rogers: They really are the great street cleaners of the world.
Krista Caballero: So there you have it. We’ve learned a little bit about these ugly duckling allies of ourselves and the complicated role they play and we play, as we coexist. In the next episode, you’ll hear some of the same voices and some new ones as well as we move beyond the Hudson Valley to explore vultures across the Americas. In the meantime, we’ve got a lot of links in the show notes, including pictures of the campus vulture log, our EH student work, and some amazing photographs by Susan Fox Rogers. EH Outloud is produced at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities by me, Krista Caballero, Corinna Cape, Bird Cohen, and Ariel West. Fact checking and transcription by Anna Hallett Gutierrez and Cymone Richardson. Sound editing and music by Ariel West and Bird Cohen. Special thanks to Alexis Brewer, Maria Sachiko Cecerie, Djimon Gibson, Alex Hardy, Erik Kiviat, Laurie Husted, Arther Hall and Michele, Bruce Robertson, Susan Fox Rogers, Nicole Salt, and the Experimental Humanities Media Corps. Visit us at eh.bard.edu to learn more about our vulture research as well as other projects at the center.