The Birds

UPDATED 09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

Dan and Carol Ann O'Byrne were starting over. They had lost everything in February 1994 when their home, a 19th-century schoolhouse in rustic Gardiner, N.Y., burned to the ground, so they used the insurance money to build a new house on their wooded three-acre lot. "Our dream home," Dan, 47, a recreation counselor for a juvenile detention center, calls it. "We designed it ourselves." And a charmer it is, a gray Cape Cod colonial with three bedrooms, two baths and white faux-Victorian gingerbread trim. Oh, and birds. Lots of them.

Not sparrows, robins or goldfinches, mind you, but black vultures, avian scavengers. Roused from their year-round roost when the O'Byrnes cleared trees to build a barn near the house, the birds descended like a biblical plague, perching on the roof and deck, in the yard and on the back fence. And sometimes they just circle. "I was coming up the road and I could see them all in the sky," recalls Carol Ann, 47, a fifth-grade teacher, of one encounter. "I didn't know how I was going to get into the house. Then I remembered I had the garage-door opener."

Somewhere, Alfred Hitchcock is smiling. So far the vultures haven't harmed Dan, Carol Ann or their son Noah, 16, but they have caused extensive property damage. And there isn't much the O'Byrnes can do about it. The vultures, which have moved up from the Southeast over the past 50 years, are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. So Dan and Carol Ann are considering a drastic recourse—seeking a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would allow them to shoot some of the birds in hopes of scaring the rest away. "They are trying hard to do the right thing," says Richard Chipman, New York state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reviews such permit applications.

Townsfolk have been generally supportive—except for Rose Whateley, 64, a retired factory worker who lives nearby. "God put them here for a reason," she says of the birds. "If I have any bad-meat, I throw it out there for them to eat." (She and the O'Byrnes no longer speak.)

Though Whateley and other neighbors have also been harassed by the vultures, the O'Byrnes have suffered most. The birds have torn up their roof with their talons, ruined the finish on the deck with their droppings and shredded the window screens with their beaks. "They see their reflection in the window and think it's another vulture," explains Dan. So he removed the screens. "Now," he says, "we hear them knocking on the glass." The vultures have also annoyed the O'Byrnes' goat Blitson and their three horses, three cats and four dogs—they especially like hovering near Noah's chow Jack, who lives in a backyard hut. Carol Ann is convinced it's not just because they covet Jack's bowl of food. "They would love to eat Jack," she says.

The O'Byrnes have tried every reasonable suggested tactic to make the vultures vamoose. They tried playing tapes of shotgun blasts, but neighbors called the police. And Dan has whacked golf balls into the woods. "A couple hundred vultures come flying out," he says. "It blackens the sky. But then they return."

The simplest solution might be for the family to move. But that's easier said than done. "Apparently they'd have a very difficult time selling," says Barry Formisano, chairman of the Gardiner Board of Assessment Review, which reduced the assessed value of their property from $189,000 to $180,000. "We all felt bad for them." For now, the O'Byrnes are digging in for the long haul. "I am not ready to throw in the towel yet," says Dan. "I built this house out of love. I don't want to give it up."

Richard Jerome
Patricia Keith in Gardiner and Jennifer Longley in New York City

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