MOUNT PLEASANT — The dead vulture dangles by a string from the tree. Beside it hangs the remnant bones of a carcass strung up earlier.

Behind it in the trees are perched a half-dozen live vultures.

Brickyard Plantation resident Ben Seabrook grins wryly as he walks the path underneath. 

"It seems to work for a while, but they come back," he said.

"It" is a U.S. Department of Agriculture ploy of hanging vulture carcasses to scare off the live birds that have become a nuisance on cell towers, water towers, catwalks and in subdivisions, such as Brickyard Plantation in Mount Pleasant.

The neighborhood homeowners group is currently in its second round of dangling three carcasses by their legs to try to intimidate live vultures who leave droppings around the pool in the amenities area and — weirdly — tear up exposed rubber caulking.

The "effigy" hangings use vultures stored in the USDA freezer after depredation, or nuisance, kills at airports and other sites.

At first glance, they look like fowl hanging in an open air market.

The people who work at rehabilitating raptors don't like it. Vultures, like other raptors, are a federally protected species.

The program stems from a study nearly 20 years ago that suggested the practice intimidated the birds, but the study also suggested the technique doesn't always work and doesn't work permanently.

By the time Seabrook has passed by on the walking path, nine vultures had gathered. Within minutes, their numbers were up to 14.

"The bottom line is that approach doesn't work forever," said Jim Elliott, director of the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. "It's a narrow solution."

He, like others, would rather see a habitat approach — separating areas where the birds become a problem from things that attract them. The vultures at Brickyard roost in a cell tower less than a half-mile away.

The problem is bigger than Brickyard. Vulture complaints are one of the most frequent issues dealt with by the wildlife management department of the USDA office in Columbia, said Noel Myers, director.

The office encourages property owners to use several approaches, including harassing the birds, setting off fireworks, sounding horns, cutting dead trees where they roost, as well as hanging dead birds.

But as a rule, vultures return to most places within months.

Having the USDA deal with them can cost anywhere from about $150 to several thousand dollars, depending on what techniques are used, Myers said.

"You try to resolve the problem, limit the damage," he said. But "you're always going to have to maintain some kind of presence."

Elliott worked with a local industry trying to get the vultures off its catwalks. They tried everything from fireworks to lasers, he said. Nothing worked more than temporarily.

The birds' penchant for rubber-pecking is real. They peel shingles off homes, gnaw windshield wipers and sealing rubber off cars — much like squirrels. The damage has become so prevalent at the southern tip of Everglades National Park in Florida that rangers have begun handing out tarps for visitors to cover their cars.

Nobody knows why vultures do it, although the texture of rubber is thought to feel like carcass skin. Finding the answer could help manage the species, Elliott said.

Vultures are just one aspect of a larger issue that communities are grappling with in 2017 as man and the environment continue to collide. Nuisance wild animals — such as cormorants on the Santee Cooper lakes or coyotes on Isle of Palms — are becoming more accustomed to living in their midst and feeding off them.

"We create prefect habitat for them. We create attractions for them, then we have to find ways to mitigate it," Elliott said. "We know there are going to be conflicts that are predictable. We need to take proactive steps."

Seabrook wears a hat when he walks, "so I don't get bombed," he said. "The birds are a real problem with the amenities. I'm OK with them using carcasses. I don't think vultures are endangered. Things die. We're all terminal. Hopefully we can figure out a way to balance with the birds' needs and (the needs of) the subdivision."

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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