Sarah Donaldson, Farm & Dairy Reporter
(Previously published online with Farm & Dairy: October 12, 2022)
In 2005, Tom Karr saw black vultures hanging around his cattle farm, in Meigs County, Ohio, for the first time. That same year, he lost 11 calves to vultures during the calving season.
“I didn’t know much about them then, but I’ve learned a lot about them since,” Karr, board president for the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, told Farm and Dairy in a phone interview.
Now, 17 years later, he regularly sees them on his farm, and all over the nearby town of Pomeroy. They perch on houses, dumpsters, cliffs and trees, and intermingle with turkey vultures. But unlike turkey vultures, they also attack live animals. In recent years, Karr has downsized from about 300 brood cows to 150 and cut back on fall calving, partly due to issues with the vultures.
Black vultures may have been in the area even during pioneer times, but only in small numbers. Their territory centered in Central and South America, but over the years, they have moved north, said Gary Ludwig, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, in a Sept. 21 talk at Farm Science Review, in London, Ohio. They can now be found throughout Ohio, especially in the southwestern and southeastern parts of the state.
“Those birds are exploiting those areas where they can find food, and they find a lot of their food where people produce cattle for a living,” Ludwig said.
Vultures play an important role in ecosystems, as scavengers that eat dead animals. Black vultures and turkey vultures look similar in a lot of ways, but turkey vultures don’t pose the same threat to live animals.
The easiest ways to tell them apart are by watching them in the air, or looking at their tails. Turkey vultures have a long wingspan and narrow tails. When they fly, their wing tips are higher than the rest of their bodies, and they rarely flap their wings, mostly soaring.
Black vultures have shorter wings and shorter, wider tails. They hold their wings straighter and flap more often. Their feathers are also a deeper black than turkey vultures, which are more of a brown color, and their heads are black, not red.
“If you see those two birds they will be flying together. But you see the birds that are constantly flapping their wings … those are going to be the black vultures. Those are the ones that are causing economic damage,” Ludwig said.
Because black vultures will attack live animals, they are a major threat to calves and other vulnerable livestock. They typically attack soft tissue first, starting around the head with the eyes, nostrils and tongue. They also tend to gather in large numbers, sometimes with dozens of vultures attacking a calf, Ludwig said.
Black vultures accounted for 26,770 cattle and calf losses across the U.S. in 2015, according to the most recent National Animal Health Monitoring System study on cattle and calf death loss, released in 2017.
Karr hasn’t had as many losses on his farm since the first year, but the vultures continue to be a threat. He patrols his fields heavily, but still typically loses one or two calves each year, between the spring and fall calving seasons. And while black vultures are a migratory bird, he’s noticed he sees them in town and at his farm year-round now.
“The trouble is, you never know when it’s coming. I can’t be out there all the time,” he said. “Both of the calving seasons are a problem, because they don’t leave.”
Farmers who suspect they’ve lost an animal to black vultures can contact USDA’s Wildlife Services to confirm it, and to get help with starting an indemnity claim with their local Farm Service Agency. It’s important to get photos of the damage, then bury the dead animal to avoid attracting more predators, Ludwig said.
Black vultures are protected as a migratory bird, but farmers can still get a depredation permit to kill vultures that are causing economic damage. Farmers who get permits can get approved to kill up to five vultures. Permits are free, and farmers do not have to wait until they have a loss to apply for a permit, Ludwig said.
He recommends that people start looking into getting permits before their calving season starts, so they can use it to kill some of the vultures if they start seeing them congregating. The permits are good for a year, and those who get permits should keep records so they can report how many black vultures they actually killed.
To get a permit application and instructions, call the Wildlife Services Ohio office at 1-866-487-3297 or 614-993-3444.
While depredation permits can help, they aren’t meant to control the overall population of black vultures, Ludwig said. But there are ways to manage the vultures outside of killing them.
Hanging an effigy of a vulture can deter them. Selectively removing large trees that vultures like to perch in near cattle and removing any dead livestock from fields can also help. Ludwig also suggested moving cows that are close to calving into areas where it’s easier to keep an eye on them.
Effigies have worked well for Karr, but his farm spans 1,250 acres, which means setting up one won’t keep the vultures away from all of his cattle. He has been able to limit how much they bother his calves and make the most of his permits by killing a bird or two near the calves, then leaving a vulture carcass nearby.
Finally, harassing vultures with pyrotechnics can help scare them off. There are a few different versions designed for bird control, but they’re all “basically like glorified fireworks,” Ludwig said. He reminded farmers to use eye and ear protection if they use pyrotechnics as a management technique.
“Quite frankly, you’re never going to kill enough of them to make a difference in your population. It’s to the point now where we’re going to have to live with them. We’re going to have to do what we have to do to discourage them,” Ludwig said.