Another, more plausible theory is that the naturally social and curious birds may simply be sampling available fare as they pass time in the morning hanging out, waiting to warm up and take to the air to forage. Or it could be young birds engaging in ritualistic feeding behavior.
One thing does seem clear: The birds aren’t nibbling because they’re hungry. They rip the rubber from vehicles but typically discard it, eating little or any of the material.
One morning last week, several dozen vultures lolled in the Flamingo lot, perching in small groups on a handful of trucks and trailers — including one protected by a billowing blue tarp — but utterly ignoring other vehicles. On this morning, none seemed particularly rapacious, absently pecking now and then at a hard vinyl around a pickup window or worn carpet on trailer bunks. A few squabbled over a two-foot strip of weather seal in the parking lot.
After a daylong outing in the Everglades backcountry, Matthew Seeburger of Plantation was shocked to see photos of his truck and boat trailer adorned with a half-dozen vultures. They’d done little, thankfully, other than peck at the carpet on the boat trailer.
“Wow, that’s what was going on while I was gone?’’ he asked. “Now that I see this, I should probably get a tarp myself.’’
Though most vehicles escape any damage, Gelber and others can attest to the heavy price if the birds take a fancy to an unattended car. More than a few videos also posted on YouTube show vultures in the Everglades going to town on cars and trucks, including one series capturing a small group shredding a rental recreational vehicle roof like it was carrion.
After complaints increased from visitors, the park posted warning signs a few years back and began consulting with federal wildlife experts to try to develop methods to break the car habit. But the options were limited for a protected species that naturally occurs in a national park.
“Harassment” techniques like making noise or squirting water are too time-consuming and disruptive and work only for short periods. A dumpster near the fish-cleaning station in Flamingo that seemed to be attracting the birds was moved farther from the parking lot. The most startling tactic, tried in 2010: effigy birds, road-kill vultures dangled from trees near Anhinga Trail.
The results, said Snow, were mixed. They disrupted the birds for a few weeks but the carcasses grew gamey, required frequent replacement and also disturbed some visitors.
In the long run, said Snow, there proved to be no cheap or easy solutions to changing the habits of birds, so the park decided to instead ask visitors to adapt to the vultures. Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said complaints have declined since the loaner tarps were distributed at Anhinga Trail last year and expanded to Flamingo this winter.
The kits are intended mainly for occasional visitors, who are asked to return the tarps and bungees when they leave the parking lot. Regulars, like Flamingo anglers, are advised to buy their own better-fitting covers. So far, Kimball said, the park hasn’t lost a single tarp. Once the weather warms, and the vulture population thins out as many head north, the risks dwindle.
Snow acknowledged that many visitors might view the vultures as ugly nuisances in a park filled with elegant wading birds and soaring ospreys and eagles but “they are indeed a useful part of the ecosystem and we certainly want them around as much as any other bird.”
Victor Lugo, a maintenance worker at Flamingo, said he has come to appreciate the role they serve. When an alligator was killed along the main road a few months ago, he pulled it off the road and nature’s clean-up crew quickly took over.
“Within two days, they’d picked him clean from the inside,’’ he said. “These are the cleanest roads in America.”