Chowan County/Edenton's St. Paul's deals with buzzards, deterrent removal

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St. Paul's Pastor Malone Gilliam shared a "Mayberry moment" story about buzzards and effigies as it relates to small town living.

012319ch miles layton

Staff Writer

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How about this for a Mayberry moment ...

Once upon a time, St. Paul's Episcopal Church had a buzzard problem. We're not talking just two or three, but more than four dozen black feathered creatures nested in the tall trees by the historic church.

These scary, flesh-eating black birds are creepy enough to inspire another rendition of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. The sight of those birds staring down from the tree limbs on Sunday mornings is/was enough to remind folks to change their ways.

Some say the buzzards may be attracted to the church grounds because Governor Eden and his wife’s remains were reinterred in 1889 within the church's cemetery long after their original burial from their plantation, Eden House, in Bertie County. The town of Edenton, formerly known as "the Town on Queen Anne's Creek," was renamed in the governor's honor shortly after his death in 1722.  

Local legend or not, so many buzzards descended on St. Paul's in recent years that it was time to do something to keep the magnolia trees' limbs from suffering. Also, the toiletry skills of these birds left a lot to be desired.

Rector Malone Gilliam and the vestry sought a “Nevermore” solution to get rid of the buzzards.

Gilliam said the birds are protected by state law because they provide a valuable service to our ecosystem, namely to clean up the dead animals that appear from time to time, be it squirrels or catfish that have washed up by Water Street. Thus, even if hunting were allowed within town limits, these birds don't have to worry about being shot.

So an idea was hatched to get rid of the buzzards. The church's Junior Warden Scotty Harrell's fired his “potato” gun into the trees – yes, it makes a loud noise and shoots potatoes – but that merely scared the birds who came back, maybe added hashbrowns to their breakfast of dead catfish.

After Gilliam consulted with state wildlife experts, an effigy was made – a fake buzzard of sorts that looked and smelled like the real thing – taxidermy at its finest. Near Easter time, the effigy was suspended by a fishing line high up in the magnolia tree – quite the conversation piece among churchgoers.

The fake/dead bird spooked the living buzzards, who took a hint and flew elsewhere.

“For some reason, although buzzards aren't scared of anything else that's dead because they eat it, they don't like to be around one of their own kind that's dead,” Gilliam said.

Now the story gets weirder. One evening about two weeks ago or so, somebody cut the effigy down. Not sure how they did it because that bird was high, very high up in the air.

When Gilliam found the dead bird/effigy one Sunday morning, he said, “I thought OK, must be a prank.”

Gilliam said he knew he needed to get that bird back in the air soon or else the buzzard flock would return in mass.

Bird was hung back up again. Problem solved. Maybe not.

“We raised the effigy back up, tied it off and then a day later or so, the bird was gone,” Gilliam said. “We thought it was stolen. We thought someone cut it down and took off with it.”

As everyone knows, St. Paul’s has a rich history and is often a stopover point for folks from out of town.

“I've seen tourists walking through our church yard and they will stand below the tree and look up at that dead bird,” Gilliam said. “I'll walk out and talk to them and they'll say, 'That's a strange sight. What in the world is going on. Is this some kind of Colonial Christian tradition?' I tell them it's how you get rid of buzzards. Those big magnolia trees were being killed by the birds, so that's why we hang these effigies.”

A busy priest with a large family, Gilliam is not always around to give nickel tour, so when a Tidewater tourist saw the buzzard hanging from the tree, that person didn't know it was an effigy needed to scare the buzzards away. Instead the tourist thought the scene was sacrilegious, Gilliam said.

And honestly, if you didn't know any better, that sounds reasonable – dead bird hanging from a tree above consecrated grounds at a Colonial era church.

“The tourist saw it, thought someone was playing a prank on us,” Gilliam said.

Anyway, the tourist calls the local authorities and the town's public works department comes out, cuts the bird down, carries it away to the dump.

Soon after, Gilliam notices the bird is missing again and makes the proper inquiries to solve this caper, which brings us to last week’s Town Council meeting.  

Much like a scene reminiscent of the Andy Griffith show, there was much excitement when the matter came up during the Town Council meeting. Long and short of it, Town Hall will reimburse St. Paul's for the cost of the bird, estimated to be around $250.

“This has become kind of a Mayberry moment,” Gilliam said. “It's a piece of Edenton when people are wondering why are we hanging these dead birds, but it's a very practical reason – to clear our magnolia trees of buzzards.”

In other news, if you don't know already, Kermit Layton has retired from the family business, Edenton Office Supply, a downtown institution for decades. Kermit has got the right idea. He's got a great boat moored in Manteo's marina. I aspire to be Kermit one day. When the dust settles after writing stories about the start of a new school year, I'll write a story about the end of an era at Edenton Office Supply.

Links at Mulberry Hill is a top notch golf course in northeastern NC. Though I’m not much of a golfer because I can’t see where the ball lands in the fairway, everything I’ve heard and seen about the 18-hole course is positive. By all accounts, Gary Hobgood, golf course superintendent, has transformed the place. I grew up on the golf course at Sedgefield Country Club, where the Greater Greensboro Open was played, a PGA stop. Trust me when I say, golf courses are holy ground, so places like Mulberry Hill are special. When my son Robert is old enough, I’m going to teach him to play golf — he has good eyesight.  

Aces' Athletic Director Wes Mattera recently received in the mail the Wells Fargo Conference Cup first place trophy for the Albemarle Athletic Conference for 2018-19 – quite an honor for John A. Holmes High School. The trophy looks big enough to be used as a punchbowl for black tie events at the 1767 Courthouse.

Lee Miller, 91, passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on August 15 in Richmond, Va. Miller was an active retiree who was involved in our community for years. He was president of the hospital Foundation when the hospital was sold. And at one time, Miller was president of the Chowan Golf and Country Club. His wife Rosalie was the librarian in Edenton for 16 years. A couple of years ago, they moved to Richmond.

Former University of South Carolina Athletics Director Dr. Mike McGee, who led the Gamecock athletics program for 12 years, died Aug. 16 peacefully at his home in Montrose, CO. He was the twin brother, Jerry, 80, who died in January. Jerry McGee served as a football coach and athletic director at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton in the 1960s. During his time with the Aces, McGee led the football program to a state championship.

Cub Scout Zion Preudhomme led the prayer this past week at Thursday's Racial Reconciliation meeting that was held at Edenton United Methodist Church. The boy makes me smile. Always good to be around happy people. Worth noting, the Racial Reconciliation group meets every Thursday at 7 p.m. at the church. Last week's meeting included an informative movie about Reconstruction. The first 23 Black congressmen were Republicans, the party of Emancipation then and later, Civil Rights.

A 2-foot long lizard has been spotted by a prominent farmer in one corner of the county. That's neat. I've seen small lizards here and there, but nothing this big. Farmer says the lizard is very good at keeping the barn clear of mice. In case there are any mice reading this newspaper who might be inclined to form an armed brigade, I'm not going to reveal the location of the lizard or the source of the story.

Lastly to end on a positive musical note, Joe Manley sang at the Edenton Rotary Club the other day during lunch – quite a treat. Before retiring to Edenton, Manley was a choir director and music teacher in Omaha, Nebraska.