Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Vultures Take Up Residence on Montreal’s Skyscrapers
By Robert J. Galbraith Montreal Gazette
Last May, Montreal resident Stephen Thompson, had just settled down to eat lunch with his colleagues in the tenth floor lunch room of their St. Catherine Street West office, when an unexpected dinner guest arrived.
“We were eating our lunch and talking, when these two huge dark birds landed on the ledge just outside the lunch room window about 20 feet away. My first response was wow! What the heck are those things? Maybe eagles? But then we noticed the birds had a naked red head and we realized they were vultures, turkey vultures! We just couldn’t believe it!” explained Thompson, who raised his cell phone to shoot a short video clip of the birds as proof of what they saw.
“They walked, or more like hobbled along the building ledge then opened their huge black wings and soared off over the city. It was an amazing site, not the sort of thing you expect to see having lunch with your fellow workers!”
This was the first and last time Thompson saw the birds on the office ledge. But just a couple of blocks north, a group of 6 vultures has taken up residence on the upper ledges of some of Montreal’s tallest and newest skyscrapers. In particular, the area of McGill College and de Maisonneuve Boulevard has become turkey vulture ‘ground zero’ for Montreal’s newest avian inhabitants.
So why are these huge scavengers living in the heart of a city that is home to 1,934,082 human residents?
Researchers say there are a number of reasons behind the creation of a ‘Perfect Storm’ of conditions that has allowed the expansion of vultures into the city and across the entire province.
Pointe Claire resident, Bob Barnhurst is one of Quebec’s best known pioneering birdwatchers. He remembers first seeing them in the 1970’s, when it was considered a very rare bird to spot. But how things have changed! “During this springs migration on the West Island, we counted over 500 vultures. This is an almost unbelievable increase in numbers,” explained the metallurgist and veteran birdwatcher. “In southern Ontario they are getting even greater numbers, thousands of sightings. Nobody could have imagined 15 or 20 years ago we would have seen this number of birds moving in.”
Barnhurst believes that, “If any bird stands a chance of survival in the city or in our rural regions, it will be the turkey vulture. From my observations, I consider this bird intelligent and able to adapt.”
Turkey vultures have been seen flying over the city as individuals or in small numbers for the last decade, but to have them take up regular residency downtown, is a very recent phenomenon.
Simon Duval, the banding co-ordinator with the McGill Bird Observatory in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, explained that a boom in deer numbers has meant a boom in vulture numbers. “Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a massive explosion in Quebec’s deer population and you can almost correlate the vulture increase, with the deer increase. Road-killed animals, particularly deer, are the vultures’ main source of prey, but they will clean up any dead animal including skunk; and it is one of the only animals that will eat skunk,” stated the researcher.
“It’s a misconception that vultures will eat rotting or putrid carcasses. They prefer fresh killed animals and also have a taste for fish. They can be seen flying along the shoreline of the riverfront looking for them,” says Duval.
Mount Royal Park and the surrounding cemeteries play host to a menagerie of animals such as racoons, skunks, squirrels, groundhogs, foxes birds etc., so there is a steady food supply not far from the downtown area.
Once a vulture has filled its crop with up to 8 pounds of carrion, they don’t have to eat for another 4 or 5 days because what they don’t digest right away is stored in their crop.
Barnhurst explained that, “Traditionally, cliff faces and caves were their favourite nest sites, so they can take off in day by launching off the cliff face, gaining instant lift without flapping. If there’s food available, in the form of carrion, and they can find a quiet nesting spot, they can raise young. There’s probably enough food available around the mountain,” he stated. “It’s also possible they are nesting nearby, somewhere in the fissure of a cliff face on Mount Royal Park, but not downtown.”
With the population explosion and a shortage of prime nesting locations, vultures are now found nesting in abandoned barns and sheds in relatively secluded farm or rural areas. There are at least three confirmed nest sites on or near the Island of Montreal.
Part of the mystery of the habits of turkey vultures is that they have never really been studied in depth. They weren’t threatened with extinction then heavily researched, like the peregrine falcon (another city nesting bird) or the bald eagle, which were the victims of pesticide contamination from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.
Turkey vultures can easily be seen with the naked eye, in the right area of downtown, flying daily above street level at around 100 to 500 feet. If you don’t see one when you first look up, give it 20 minutes and you can be pretty certain to see one or more come into view soaring on their six-foot-wide wings, just overhead. They are a very social animal and when one is seen, there’s a very good chance that others are nearby.
They regularly perch on the upper ledges of three of their favourite downtown skyscrapers. These are the 34-storey, Tour KPMG skyscraper (formerly Place de la Cathédrale) at 600 de Maisonneuve West, the 28-storey Place Montreal Trust building at 1800 McGill College and the 36-storey, Le 1501 McGill College building.
All these office towers were built between 1987 and 1992, and rather than being constructed in the older architectural style of the basic straight up and down, rectangular shape, these newer structures have upper floors that taper in, creating a number of sheltered ledges and recesses which the birds frequent and lounge undisturbed upon. These changes in architectural style, as well as food availability and potential nesting sites, are a key part of the puzzle to why these magnificent birds are in the city.
“In many parts of the world, vultures are actually revered as they do the dirty work of cleaning up dead animals and garbage that carry diseases. They are nature’s recyclers and are no threat to human beings or other living things,” explained Duval. “This is all part of the cycle of nature. Nature is so complex that we still only know a fraction about why and how it works.”