An update on the infamous anti-vulture cannon
The town of Bunn was overrun by buzzards, so it installed a cannon to make them go away. So what happened, and can YOU use a cannon when nature's janitors come to your home?
NOTE: I came down with a particularly nasty stomach bug, and so instead of today’s regularly-scheduled Rabbit Hole, I want to present an update on something I wrote back on December 21, 2020. At the time, the small town of Bunn, in Franklin County, was having a really bad vulture problem, and had put a propane cannon on top of the local high school to get the birds to go away. So, did it work? Scroll to the bottom for some details on what’s happened since then.
The problem: Vultures.
Can vultures happen here? They did!
You know what you never want to see on the roof of your house? Like, a dozen vultures. Out here in my neighborhood, there were a bunch of them that flew from house to house last year. Perching. Looking. Waiting. WAITING FOR YOU TO DIE. It’s even more chilling when you learn the name for a group of vultures: a wake.
I know they’re a vital part of nature’s cruel majesty. I also understand what it’s like to be very creeped out by them and wanting them gone. But! You cannot just shoot a vulture. It is a federally protected migratory bird, which means you cannot murder it, nor can you disturb its nest or its eggs. However, it is perfectly legal to harass a vulture. To yell at it. To say unkind things about its mother. To make it feel, while it is picking at a dead animal, as if it is having lunch at Ed Debevic’s.
None of that would have worked in my case. The birds were out of rock-throwing range. They ignored me when I screamed at them to leave. They did not react to my dog’s impotent barks.
So, how can you make vultures go away? Bud, I’ve got two words for you.
I became fully aware of this tactic after seeing a story that’s been picked up by CNN, the New York Post, the Daily Beast, and who knows how many local TV stations. The town of Bunn is going to rid itself of its vulture infestation with a cannon. A CANNON.
I’m sorry, a cannon? Well actually, an automated propane cannon, which is quite different than the type of cannon one fires on Fort Sumter/during the finale of the 1812 Overture. Basically, you go over to Food Lion and get a canister of Blue Rhino, hook it up to what amounts to a metal tube with a timer, and set it to go off several times a day. It’s really loud — 130 decibels — which is about how loud it would be if you were 50 feet away from a jet fighter taking off. The propane cannon doesn’t actually fire mortar shells. It does make rib-rattling loud booms that scare off all sorts of wildlife. If you want to see how they work, here’s a dude firing one to frighten some ducks:
Are propane cannons A Thing? Maybe not to you, city boy. Automated propane cannons are fairly common on farms and at airports to clear away wildlife that might otherwise eat your crops or get sucked into jet engines. All of this is clear once you click on any of the aforementioned stories, but a version of “SMALL NORTH CAROLINA TOWN INSTALLS CANNON TO RID ITSELF OF VULTURES” was too good a headline for digital editors to pass up.
Can I buy one, and live dat propane cannon life? Yes, but you’ll need a special license from your local game warden, along with an operator’s permit that requires 20 hours of ornithology classwork, along wi— ah I’m just kidding YOU CAN ORDER ONE ON AMAZON.
They’ll run you about $300-$700. My favorite one is named Automatic Scarecrow, which also happens to be the name of my prog rock band.
Okay, I got one. When can I start frightenin’ me some birds? Son, have a seat. I’ve got some bad news for you.
In North Carolina, there is no state law that explicitly mentions propane cannons. But, you know what literally every county, city, and town has? That’s right, a noise ordinance. No local government board can resist a rule that prevents the youths from driving their Camaros down Main Street at 11:30pm blasting Huey Lewis out of an aftermarket sub-woofer, or whatever it is that you kids do nowadays.
Fun fact, though: You know who’s almost always exempt from local noise ordinances? FARMERS.
When you’re out in the country, you’re used to hearing loud, piercing noises. But more and more, as farmland is converted into subdivisions, suburban folk are learning first-hand about the dulcet sounds of agriculture.
Here is what tends to happen: A desperate farmer, who’s tried everything to keep birds or bears from eating all of his crops, buys an automated propane cannon as a last resort and sets it off several times a day. This seriously freaks out his new neighbors, who discover that there is no law that can stop it, and then turn to the local county commission for help.
That exact scenario played out in Henderson County seven years ago, when an orchard owner set up a cannon in between some rows of apples trees and let ‘er rip:
“I’ve done everything,” he said. “I’ve got speakers scattered out in the field that has some sort of prey bird sound that’s supposed to scare them. I’ve shot them. But if you get into starlings, they travel in groups of 200 to 300. I could shoot one and they’d just fly off into the adjacent woods and 15 minutes later, they’d be back.“
The orchard owner also talked about how amazing it was that he could get an entire season’s worth of eardrum-shattering blasts out of one 20-gallon propane tank.
The people in the newish subdivision across the street were not happy. One thought that someone was constantly blowing up tree stumps with dynamite, which would have been much more metal.
The local county commission agreed to talk about it at the next meeting. During the public comment period, eight people rose to talk the cannon. Among their complaints:
One man asked the orchard owner to “please cease and resist.”
According to the minutes: “Mr. O’Malley’s peaceful life halted approximately one month ago.”
A guy felt the noise was a violation of his rights and questioned how much damage the birds really do.
Later in the meeting, the county attorney said what’s basically the stock answer here: That yes, there is a noise ordinance, but no, it doesn’t apply to farms, and legally, there was nothing he could do. The orchard owner did say that 2013 was a particularly bad year for birds and that the cannon would only be a temporary solution. After all, you don’t want kids being knocked off out of apple trees by sonic booms during the harvest.
So, you’re saying I can buy a propane cannon, but I can’t set it off in my neighborhood? That is exactly what I’m saying. The town of Bunn sent out a public notice, because it knew people would be as scared as the birds. But the rest of us city and suburban folk have to follow the law. And, as much as I would have loved to use one at my home, the vultures eventually got bored on my roof and moved along to haunt some other family.
I’m sorry, I thought this was AMERICA. If I can’t fire off a propane cannon for pleasure, what can I do? I’m not vouching for the legality, safety, or bird-dispersing properties of this thing I’m about to mention, but … have you heard of a potato gun?
If you didn’t grow up in a small, boring town, here’s what that is: A PVC pipe that’s closed on one end, with a sparker inside that ignites some sort of fuel and blasts some sort of organic projectile out like a bullet.
Unlike buzzards, potato guns are not federally regulated!
There is some murkiness about their legality on a state level (although shooting one at somebody could, you know, possibly kill them and is definitely bad). The debate over whether they’re a firearm seems to center on whether they use some sort of fuel to shoot off the vegetable versus compressed air, like a T-shirt cannon. There is a Wikipedia page out there with an all-timer of a name, “Spud gun legality,” but it’s largely unhelpful.
I’m not going to say whether you should try one, but let me close with my only potato gun experience. At least 20 years ago, I was hanging out with my brother, and his friend showed up with one. It was a cold December night, and we sat out in the friend’s suburban driveway, stuffing potatoes down the open end, and filling the space behind it with super-flammable Axe Body Spray. Then we pointed the tube toward the sky, pushed a button, and watched as a potato rocketed upward into the darkness, first within view of the neighborhood street lights and then vanishing into the clear night sky. It was the dumbest sort of gleeful fun. And after a little bit, after we’d shot off a half-dozen potatoes, one of us finally asked a very important question: Where are they landing?
Bonus Reading: That time, in 1969, when blackbirds invaded the town of Scotland Neck, North Carolina.
AND NOW, AN UPDATE: About a year after the cannon was set up, a few news organizations followed up to see if it worked. Nope! An October 2021 headline in The Guardian read: “Vultures who came to stay bring year of acid vomit and toxic feces to small town.” Okay!
The cannon initially spooked the vultures, but that brought another issue: The birds have a tendency to vomit when startled. On top of all of that, vultures have strong stomach acids to digest all of the nasty stuff they eat, and so, per The Guardian, “The acidity of their expulsions can strip the paint from a car – and presumably anything else covered in paint – in no time.” In time, the cannon no longer scared the vultures, who were now vomiting and dropping acidic poop everywhere.
So is the vulture problem still a problem? “It’s nothing like it was,” said the woman who picked up the phone at Bunn town hall on Thursday. “It’s a lot better.” (Other town officials hadn’t called me back as of Thursday afternoon.)
Are they completely gone, though? Nope! As recently as August, the Food Lion in Bunn was trying to scare them off:
You know what they say: A vulture isn’t afraid of a Lion.
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