Ohio farmer Fred Scott has to witness black vultures watching over his cows as they go into labor. Despite his vigilance, he’s lost two calves to the predatory scavengers in the past 10 years.
“As soon as that calf is born, before it can get off the ground, they usually go after their eyes, and they will pick their eyeballs out,” he says. Then, typically, they’ll go after their tongues and rectal areas — any soft tissue area. When they do that, the calves bleed to death because they’re still alive when it happens.”
Unlike its red-headed cousin the turkey vulture, which feeds only on the carcasses of dead animals, black vultures are an aggressive bird that will, on occasion, kill other animals for food.
The bird is becoming problematic for a broadening region from the Gulf of Mexico up to Ohio, and from Texas to New York.
“Black vultures normally feed on animal carcasses, which provide a valuable service to our ecosystem,” says Thomas Butler, wildlife biologist for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services. “However, they can become more aggressive and may attack and kill calves, lambs, piglets and other weak animals. This predatory behavior often results in serious injury to livestock, because vultures target the eyes and soft tissues. In most cases, due to the extent of their injuries, affected domestic animals must be euthanized.”
As migratory birds killed, black vultures are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, state laws and regulations, which means they can’t be or destroyed without a US Fish and Wildlife Services Migratory Bird Depredation permit.
Recognizing this growing problem and to streamline the federal permitting process, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has obtained a statewide depredation permit for black vultures from US Fish and Wildlife Services. Now, Ohio livestock producers who are experiencing issues with black vultures can apply to remove up to five black vultures. The permits are good for a year and are free. Similar programs are in place for other states, as well.
When using lethal reinforcement, Butler says to take one vulture in sight of the entire flock to scare the rest. Then, hang the dead vulture upside down from its feet, which is called an effigy.
“Hang it in the area where you do not want the vulture to be,” he says. “Vultures do not like the sight of effigies and will usually disperse from the area. If they return in a couple of days, repeat the process.”
It’s not designed to be population control. “Use effigies on the farm to get you through calving or lambing season,” Butler says. “The vast majority of the time, it does a pretty good job of getting rid of them.”
Scott, located in southern Ohio’s Brown County, not far from the Ohio River, has been in the cow-calf business for more than 40 years. He runs a 65-head operation, finishing about half of the calves and selling feeders. He has used the permits and the effigy strategy with some success, but says it’s no substitute for keeping a watchful eye.
“One of my cows was having a difficult birth lying down, and before the calf was completely out, the vultures were on the calf,” he says. “And they actually got on the cow and started pecking on her vagina and rectal area while she was laying there — they’re extremely aggressive at times. I was close enough that I was able to intervene and save both the calf and the cow, but if I hadn’t been there, it’s very possible I could have lost both the calf and the cow.”
Scott also has a couple of dogs. “But black buzzards are brazen — you have to get pretty close to make them fly away,” he adds.
On occasion, where a group of cows is close enough to a cow calving, Scott has seen them establish a perimeter and run off vultures.
Others means to deter
There are a few other strategies for black vulture control, butler advises. “I recommend vultures be harassed whenever they are seen,” he says. “Use loud noises, and drive a four-wheeler to run them off. Auditory harassment with pyrotechnics is the best thing. They’re specially made to scare birds — they’re kind of like fireworks. And you want to do this the first time you see them because you don’t want them to get comfortable.”
Butler has a list of harassment tools and where they can be purchased, but he also recommends a marine air horn, green lasers and sky dancers.
“The green lasers are good for scaring vultures in the morning and evening, or during low-light conditions,” he says. “The sky dancers, if put on a timer, do a nice job of scaring vultures from a specific area, such as a small pasture or barn lot.”
Butler says other management options include:
Carcass management. Properly dispose of any dead cattle. Bury them underground or compost. Carcasses on the landscape attract predators.
animal husbandry. Keep a close eye on heifers calving for the first time. Predators seem to key in on them.
Vegetation management. Vultures have been known to roost and loaf in large, dead trees. Remove these trees if they are near your pasture.
Black vultures are expanding their territory, Butler says. “We’re seeing them along Lake Erie in the winter time now,” he says. “It’s possible to see them in all 88 Ohio counties.”
And while the black vulture is classified as a migratory bird, they don’t fly as far south as the turkey vulture. “It might be just southern Ohio where they will hang out all winter,” Butler says. “US Wildlife Services has been dealing with them since 2008, when it was mostly a southwest Ohio problem, but it’s everywhere now.”
Normally about 30 permits (for five vultures each) are issued in a calendar year, but by early April, Butler says they had already dispensed more than 30.
If a producer loses an animal to black vultures, they should thoroughly document the event and contact their local Farm Service Agency office, as they could qualify for reimbursement under the Livestock Indemnity Program.
Black vultures also can 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.
“They like to pick at stuff,” Butler adds
For more information about managing vulture damage, or other Wildlife Services operations, call your state office at 1-866-4USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297), or visit aphis.usda.gov.
Livestock producers in Ohio may request a black vulture permit application by contacting Butler at [email protected] or 614-993-3449.