Unwelcome arrival

Black vultures are moving north, and their reputation precedes them. Unlike the Midwest’s ubiquitous turkey vulture, which quietly goes about its job of removing carrion, black vultures have earned ill renown for residential and commercial property damage. Now they are in Today’s Farmer country, and among farmers, black vultures are earning a reputation for attacking live calves.

That’s how Jim and Sharon Shepherd realized black vultures had moved into the neighborhood. The Shepherds have sighted the birds on their Lawrence County, Mo., farm, and the couple suspects they have lost two calves to black vultures.

“On the first calf we lost, I was checking cows and found one that hadn’t been nursed. At that point, we knew we needed to find the calf, and we did. There were buzzards all over it. There were enough of them that they’d eaten to the bone around the ribs. There wasn’t much of the calf left. At the time, I assumed it was just a calf that had died. I left it there for the buzzards to do their jobs.”

That was two years ago. Since then, Shepherd has learned more about black vultures, which increased his suspicions that the birds were lurking on his place.

“It was about two months after losing that first calf that I was at an exten­sion meeting led by Eldon Cole,” he said. “There were a couple of farmers there talking about black vultures, and they mentioned that black vultures aren’t very afraid of people.”

Shepherd thought back to the dead calf. “There were at least 10 buzzards on it,” he said, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as black buzzards, but these weren’t really scared of me. I got within a few yards of them. One just sat on a stump and watched me. The others flew but lit on trees not far away and waited.”

One of the challenges of knowing whether black vultures are preying on live newborn calves is that the incident often happens with no witnesses. Because vul­tures generally feed on soft tissue first, calves with missing eyes but fresh red-col­ored blood around the eye sockets are a sign that the calf was fed upon while still alive. Black vultures also often feed on backs and side quarters, maybe as a result of injuries inflicted on the calf to bring it down.

In autumn of 2018, the second calf the Shepherds lost was more incriminating for the black vulture.

The calf belonged to a herd veteran, an easy-calving cow. She had good maternal instincts and was even what Shepherd calls “a little ranchy” or extra defensive of her calves. He can’t prove the vultures killed the calf, but he was on site within hours after it was born, and it was covered with black vultures. The cow had given up and was across the pasture. This time he could identify the birds. There wasn’t enough of the calf left to do forensics.

“They definitely had black heads. There were 15 to 20 on the calf. These acted the same way as the first ones,” he said. “I got up within 20 feet with the pickup before they started getting up.”

Stories like the Shepherds’ are becoming more common in MFA territory. While black vultures are a migratory bird, their territorial range has traditionally been in more southern regions of the United States, throughout Central America and the warmer areas of South America. In recent years, black vulture sightings have moved north. Roosting black vultures have been documented as far north as Highway 36 at Callao, Mo., where a case of live calf predation was documented.

Because they are migratory birds, black vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits hunting them. You can’t kill them to protect livestock or property unless you have a permit.

Based in southwest Missouri, Josh Wisdom is one of six Missouri Department of Conservation Wildlife Damage Biologists across the state. Wisdom said it is hard to quantify numbers of black vultures or any precise reasons for their northward movement. Theories for the movement include changes in seasonal climate as well as a general range expansion due to growing populations or other factors.

“I think about the armadillo,” Wisdom said. “We went from not having them 30 years ago to the numbers we have now. You go from zero to a slow increase. We’ve just started hearing more about black vultures in Missouri in the past few years.”

Wisdom is called on regularly for assistance in con­trolling black vultures, especially in residential areas where congregations of them can do severe damage to houses and other structures. They pull out waterproofing materi­als between chimneys and roofs, destroy pool and hot tub covers and even remove shingles from houses. That’s not to mention the droppings. Wisdom figures the largest group he has seen is 50 to 60 birds on a house.

In residential areas, Wisdom’s go-to solution is to hang a black vulture effigy. Effigies are dead or fake dead animals hung to deter the species from congregating in an area. Wisdom uses a modified Canada goose decoy that he paints and adorns to look like a dead black vulture.

“Effigies work,” Wisdom said. “In Missouri, we have some vultures throughout the year, but they are migratory, so the problem is worse in the summer. Where I have used them, effigies will typically fix a problem for the season.”

He emphasized that its best to place effigies before migra­tory black vultures arrive on the scene and establish a rou­tine and roost. For cattle producers, Wisdom suggests hanging effigies around calving season.

Once he was convinced he had black vultures, Jim Shepherd decided that an effigy would be his first line of deterrence. His son, Jay, an agriculture teacher at Mt. Vernon, Mo., helped by plasma cutting sheet metal into a black vulture silhouette, which Shepherd attached to a step-in pole that he puts in his pasture.

“I’m not sure it scares buzzards,” Shepherd said, “But it scares horses.”

While Wisdom has been success­ful with man-made effigies and seen silhouette effigies work around landfills and other places where vultures can be a nuisance, he says the best effigy is an actual dead black vulture, preferably one from the group of birds you hope to disburse.

Permits granted to destroy black vultures are more to collect birds for effigies than to reduce black vulture populations. The number of vultures allowed to be destroyed will vary by permit and the circumstances for which it is issued.

“You aren’t going to shoot your way out of the problem,” Wisdom said.

After having lost a couple of calves to suspected black vulture attacks and seeing more of them in the surrounding area, Shep­herd is in the process of obtaining a permit. He said that both state and federal officials have been easy to work when it comes to dealing with vultures, but there is paperwork required.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues the permit, but you can start with a call to the state USDA-APHIS office at 1-866-487-3297. If you are suffering livestock losses due to vulture attack, USFWS will coordinate with USDA to expedite the permitting process down to a couple of days and can issue the permit by email. Be prepared to answer a few questions about the nature and extent of damage to property or injury to live­stock. It’s a good idea to take photos of any livestock injuries as well as the birds on your property if possible.

While you need a permit to kill a vulture, it is not illegal to harass them to move them off your property or discourage threats to livestock. Pyrotechnics such as scare cartridges for firearms can be used to frighten roosting birds. Wisdom said that lasers work to move birds as well. An online search for “bird laser” yields several options.

As preemptive management against black vultures, Wisdom suggests looking at the habitat around lots and pastures used for calving. Vultures are drawn to dead trees for roosts. “If you have dead trees, push them down,” he said.

Properly disposing of dead livestock helps, too. If you see turkey vultures circling your above your farm, see what is attracting them. Black vultures can’t smell as well as turkey vultures and as a result, follow turkey vultures to find carrion.

So far in the Midwest, livestock losses from black vultures are infrequent, but that’s hardly consoling if it’s your calf build­ing the statistics. Wisdom said that due to vultures’ federal protection status when the birds prey on livestock, producers are eligible for the Farm Service Agency’s Livestock Indemnity Program. Payment on losses is based on 75 percent of market value along with other considerations. For more information on the program go to mfa.ag/livestock_indemnity.

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