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Black Vultures Preying on Livestock is a Growing Problem

Black Vulture. Photo by Cayambe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via wikimedia.org

Black Vulture populations are increasing and, with warmer winters, their range is expanding too. Once only found in the southeast United States, the birds are now being seen as far north as Indiana. The problem is, unlike their cousin the Turkey Vulture, which only feeds on carrion, black vultures are aggressive enough to take live animals. According to Bryan Kluever, USDA Wildlife Services, there are documented cases of black vultures killing and eating newborn calves, lambs, piglets and other domestic animals. They can also go after weak adults that are on the ground.

Rollin Bach, an eastern Indiana farmer, has firsthand experience with the damage that black vultures can do. He had a cow that was partially paralyzed following birth complications. The veterinarian who came to check her said she would recover and could be left in the pasture. But because she couldn’t stand up, she couldn’t escape the Black Vultures that then attacked and killed her.

This is a problem that southern graziers have dealt with for some time. As Black Vulture numbers have multiplied, so has the damage they do. The Kentucky Farm Bureau estimates that farmers in that state lose $300,000 to $500,000 worth of livestock each year to the birds.

The birds are also quite intelligent. Derek Lawson, the head herdsman for Foxhollow Farm near Oldham, Kentucky described how they attack calves to an AP reporter in 2019:

They like to play with the newborns, he said. They’ll hop around and get the calf comfortable with them before they peck out their eyes.

“Then they can’t see,” he said, “so they can take them over.”

The whole process, from the playful taunt to the complete skinning, doesn’t take long at all, he added. Depending on the size, it may only take minutes. “They’re very efficient at what they do.”

Vultures have sharp beaks that Lawson says is like coming at someone with a skinning knife. “It’s all clean cuts. Usually the hide’s completely cut off, whereas with a coyote or doges, it’ll be torn and jagged.”

Black Vulture droppings can harm or kill trees. They also “regurgitate a reeking and corrosive vomit” on themselves to kill bacteria on their legs. This eats away at the metal in radio towers and is potentially hazardous for tower maintenance workers. Birds may also drop prey from the tall towers creating a dangerous situation for people below. Photo by Andrew C – Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), CC BY 2.0, via wikipedia.

Black Vultures are causing other kinds of problems as well. They like to peck on rubber, so windshield wiper blades and the gaskets on windshields can be targets. At Everglades National Park, at certain times of the year, Visitor Center staff hands out tarps so visitors can cover their vehicles to protect them from the vultures. Wildlife Services staff have also used bird bangers, fire crackers and effigies and handheld lasers. But in cities, where vultures perch on flat roofs and peck away the rubber membranes, researchers are looking at another option: those wavy, air dancer men commonly seen at car dealerships. They’re modifying them to run off of solar power so they can function more effectively on roof tops.

Click to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology an hear the sounds Black Vultures make.

No, We Can’t Kill Them on Sight

Black Vulture hatchlings

Black Vultures are covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which combines four international conservation treaties the U.S. entered into with Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia. Listed birds, their nests and their eggs can not be harmed without federal permission.

Federal permits to shoot the birds are available for $100 and must be renewed annually. Harming birds without a permit can result in a $15,000 fine and six months in jail. To help farmers in their area, the Kentucky Farm Bureau began buying permits through a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and offering sub-permits for free to eligible applicants. This could be a useful example for other regions confronting Black Vulture problems.

Effigies to Scare Off Vultures

Dummy dead birds hanging from trees seem to be another way to scare the vultures off, at least temporarily. The dead birds themselves can also be used this way. Derek Lawson, says that he usually has to kill a few in the beginning of calving season. He hangs them upside down from tree limbs and then for a few months the birds are wary and stay further away. He says noise doesn’t seem to bother them much and that the effigies are the most effective for him.

Protecting Your Livestock

As with any predator, it’s important to remove and dispose of carcasses or other things that could attract the birds. If you compost on site, be aware the black vultures will dig through compost piles looking for something to eat. Properly burying carcasses can deter this.

If you have other information or suggestions, do share them in the comments below!

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