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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    Unwelcome flock: Vultures destroying Norwich church roof

    Black vultures and turkey vultures gather on the roof of a house Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, across the street from Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich. The vultures are damaging the roof of the church. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Black vultures and turkey vultures gather on a tree Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, across the street from Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich. The vultures are damaging the roof of the church. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Father Demetrios Panteloukas, pastor of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich stands Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in the choir loft that suffered extensive water damage when the ceiling collapsed Dec. 18. A large bucket in the corner collects water from the leaking roof. Vultures have caused extensive damage to the roofs over the church and the church hall. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich – The sanctuary inside the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church was crowded for the Dec. 18 service, when the ceiling above the rear choir loft groaned with enough of a warning for worshipers in nearby pews to scatter.

    “Some people got splattered,” said George Efthimiou, president of the parish council.

    “When the ceiling collapsed, it was total water,” said the pastor, Father Demetrios Panteloukas.

    This was no ordinary roof leak. The Greek Church is at the center of a very different outdoor congregation, flocks of turkey vultures and black vultures that roost on winter mornings and evenings in trees and on rooftops of the church, houses and at times atop the Backus Hospital across Washington Street.

    The vultures have taken a liking to the church roof, ripping up shingles, pecking holes with their sharp beaks, urinating with their highly acidic and corrosive urine and tearing the roof with long, sharp talons. The church has patched holes, only to have the vultures rip away the patches.

    Church officials estimated the damage at over $100,000, including the need to remove all damaged carpet in the choir loft and stairway, replace the choir loft ceiling and the church hall ceiling and repair water-damaged pews and walls. Questions remain about whether the choir loft subfloor must be replaced and how much it would cost to restore the large iconography canvas mural that adorns the choir loft balcony facade. The interior dome ceiling above the sanctuary also has water stains

    The Norwich church is in a battle with its insurance company, Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co. Efthimiou said the proposed settlement is not enough to cover the cost, and the church has hired its own adjuster to assist with the claim.

    Father Panteloukas said he is anxious for the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church to regain its strong outreach tradition. The church hall for years hosted food and clothing drives. Its kitchen was used to cook dinners for the monthly community meal program at nearby Lee Memorial United Methodist Church.

    And the church’s annual Grecian Food Festival brought in patrons of all ages and faiths from across the city and region.

    “We basically just want to come back and be a vital part of the community,” Efthimiou said.

    Holy Trinity members are working on a broad fundraising campaign to help pay for the vulture damage and extensive modernization renovations to the church hall and kitchen.

    Renovations to the kitchen are nearly complete, and work in the church hall should be done by April 1, allowing indoor dining and other events once again. Repairing the more recent damage is not yet set, although 10 a.m. Sunday services are able to continue.

    Father Panteloukas said all are welcome to the service to see the church and learn more about the Greek Orthodox faith and the church’s community outreach mission.

    Repairing the roof damage and preventing future vulture damage are more problematic.

    “Everybody’s kind of stumped,” Panteloukas said. “We’ve had five different roofing companies come in with different ideas.”

    Both turkey vultures and black vultures are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to kill the birds, prohibits destroying eggs, nests and young birds, said Jenny Dickson, director of the Wildlife Division at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

    While turkey vultures have been common in Connecticut, black vultures, a more southern species, have been moving into the state over the past 10 years, Dickson said. The birds congregate together but do not interbreed, she said.

    “Sometimes, black vultures tend to cause this type of damage more,” Dickson said.

    A pamphlet describing vulture damage posted on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website sounds like it could have come from the script of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, “The Birds.”

    “Large groups of vultures may roost or occupy woodlots near homes and can be destructive,” the pamphlet states. “Black vultures often damage homes and commercial buildings by tearing window caulking, roof shingles, vent seals, rubber roof liners, and pool covers. They can damage vehicles by scratching paint, removing rubber seals and wipers, and ripping vinyl seat covers from boats and tractors.”

    While church leaders have been told the vultures eat pieces of tar roof to aid in digestion, it’s more likely that the birds are digging into the roof to search for insects beneath the top layer, Dickson, a wildlife biologist, said.

    “Vultures are designed to have very sharp bills and very sharp talons, because they have to tear apart their food,” said Dickson, a wildlife biologist. “Just moving on roofs can cause damage to shingles or roofing. If they hear anything under the roof, they will investigate what’s underneath.”

    Vultures have very acidic stomach acid to kill bacteria on their scavenged meal, and acid in their urine helps keep contamination off their legs and feet, she said. The birds have evolved well to suit their purpose in nature.

    “I want to remind folks, even though they sometimes cause nuisance problems, and are not the most beautiful birds,” Dickson said, “they are incredibly important to the ecosystem, because they consume things that have died. They can help prevent the spread of disease. They perform an incredibly important function in our ecosystem. They are perfectly designed for their role in life.”

    Vultures nest in rocky cliff faces, so shifting to rooftop perches in winter is easy for them, Dickson said. On cold days, they may congregate around warm chimneys, especially the warmer-weather black vultures.

    The federal protection does allow property owners to use harassment techniques to try to get the birds to move along to another roosting spot, Dickson said. Lights or loud noises a half hour before sunset to a half hour afterward, repeated nightly for a period of time, “might work.”

    She recommended the church or other property owners contact the USDA for advice. The federal agency will assist property owners with nuisance roosting issues, she said, for “a reasonable fee.”

    One trick that might work is to hang an effigy, Dickson said, a fake or even real dead vulture hung upside down near the roosting area. Hanging a fake vulture would not require a permit, she said, but federal protection means property owners cannot kill a vulture to hang it.

    And a dead vulture hanging upside down might not be the image the church wants to project, she said.


    Editor’s note: This version corrects the online donations website.

    Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church is raising money to pay for renovations and repairs after extensive vulture damage to the church and hall at 247 Washington St., Norwich.

    Feb. 23-24: Drive-thru mini-Grecian Food Festival, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. featuring favorite items from the church’s popular fall festivals, including roast chicken, rice, spanakopita, pastitsio, Greek salad, rice pudding and baklava. Mini festivals are planned every two months. Future dates not set.

    Cash raffle: $100 per ticket. Top prize, $5,000, second prize, $1,000, third prize, $750, and three $250 prizes. Drawing to be held May 15.

    Four-day Grecian Food Festival to return in fall. Date not set.

    Cash donations can be made on a dedicated website, www.givetrinity.com.

    Checks can be made out to "HTGOC" and mailed to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 247 Washington St., Norwich, CT 06360.

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