Few predators in recent years have created a stir quite like the black vulture. It is loved by biologists – and equally despised by farmers.
You can curse it. You can bless it. What you can’t do is kill it.
All vultures are scavengers – feeding on dead flesh: In essence, a clean-up crew. But the black vulture is a bolder bird, willing to kill weakened or young animals.
“It won’t pass up a free meal, but it will kill if it needs to,” said Brandon Boone, a conservation officer with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
Protected by the federal government through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the coragyps atratus have increased in range and population.
Tales of its aggression have reached across the state as farmers report attacks on newborn calves and cows giving birth. (Editor’s note: The details are not for the squeamish.)
The financial loss of the livestock is aggravated by the gruesome nature of the attacks. A group of farmers attending the LaRue County Cattleman’s Association meeting last week described their losses attributed to the vulture. Boone said he would pass the information to officials with KFW.
“Bird biologists say (attacks) are rare,” Boone said. But the reports he hears from farmers say otherwise.
One farmer saw a black vulture “standing on the back of a newborn calf … trying to peck its eyes out,” said Boone. Going after the eyes is a fast way to disable the young animal and commence the meal.
Donald McDowell, who owns a farm between Hodgenville and Magnolia, said a group of about 15 vultures pecked out one of his cow’s eyes as she was giving birth.
“She was a good cow, too,” said McDowell.
Gil Myers described watching a wake (flock) of black vultures track a blind calf through the woods.
Mark Tucker lost five calves in 2014, attributed to the raptor.
Tucker, who owns a farm near the Mount Tabor area in Buffalo, purchased a registered Angus bull to improve his herd. He believes that during the fall calving season, three healthy bull calves and two heifers were killed by vultures. He estimates the financial loss at $1,500 to $1,800 per head.
He has photos of one of the carcasses. The vultures ate through the calf’s back parts and its navel.
One of his cows, that was giving birth, had been pecked on her tailbone.
“They’re pretty smart,” Tucker said of the vultures. They appear to know when he is around – and stay out of sight. They have a large roost in the woods on his property.
He expected one of his cows to calve on a Sunday last fall. He checked on her before he went to church. He didn’t see “a single vulture” at that time. When he came home two hours later, he saw “a big black spot” in the field. He assumed the cow was down (having difficulty with the birth) until he got closer – and the wake of vultures took flight. They had been feasting on a newborn calf.
He’s been dealing with the black vultures for three years. He lost one calf in 2012; and two in 2013.
“If it wasn’t for neighbors calling me, it would be worse,” he said. “They see them congregating in trees and let me know.”
Tucker said he’s had problems with coyotes in the past – but he can legally take care of that problem.
According to KFW’s website, there is no daily bag limit on coyotes – and they can be taken year-round by hunters.
Landowners with “livestock depredation problems can get permission from their local conservation officer to trap coyotes whenever they are a problem.”
The black vulture is federally protected, and there is a lengthy and aggravating process to obtain a permit to eliminate it. Steel shot must be used – and that’s the least of the restrictions.
Tucker applied for a permit but by the time he received approval to shoot one of the birds, it was too late in the year to help.
“They’re gone by mid-November,” he said.
Boone agreed, saying the permit application is a “tedious, long process – and the permit costs about $100.” The applicant must show proof that he has tried other (non-lethal) methods.
Tucker said he has resorted to “driving around and shooting in the air” to aggravate the wake, in hopes they will move on.
Boone is requesting that farmers document any healthy calf or cow losses or injuries that can be attributed to the black vulture or aggression of the bird. He will pass the information to Fish and Wildlife.
“They want some proof – they like photos,” he said.
Many times the black vulture will eat afterbirth or a stillbirth – and those instances should not be submitted.
Boone said the “more people make (Fish and Wildlife) aware of documented cases, the more likely they are to change things. If 200 people from this county do that, they can’t ignore that.”
Photos should be emailed to him at Brandon.email@example.com. Or, he can be called at 270-491-0541.
Turkey vultures do not take live prey – they only feed on animals that are already deceased. Turkey vultures can be identified by their red heads.
Black vultures will feed on carrion and live prey – usually newborn or sick and dying animals. They are smaller than turkey vultures – and more aggressive.
Black and turkey vultures are protected by federal law and cannot be killed without a federal permit. If black vulture attacks on livestock are documented, landowners can apply for a permit to reduce the black vulture population on their farms. In order to start the application process, they should contact the USDA Wildlife Services at 502-254-1592. Take photos of the damage whenever possible to accompany the application.
Although it is illegal to kill a vulture without a permit, it is legal to harass vultures away from roosting areas. Landowners can make loud noises (shooting a gun in the air or pyrotechnics) or spray the birds with a water hose.
By Linda Ireland
LaRue County Herald News