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Protected black vultures preying on livestock industry

Protected black vultures preying on livestock industry
States beginning to take action to reduce numbers and prevent losses.

Livestock producers beware: Black vultures are on the hunt, and they aren’t just looking for dead animals. These migratory birds are known to attack and eat live animals, too.

The birds have become a problem for many Ohio livestock producers in recent years, said Stan Smith, an Ohio State University Extension program assistant in agriculture and natural resources.

Black vultures, which have black heads and white tips on the undersides of their wings, are easily distinguished from turkey vultures, which have red heads as adults, are larger and have longer wings. Immature turkey vultures have blackish-gray heads.

The turkey vulture (left) is larger than the black vulture (right). The black vulture weighs less than 4 pounds with a wingspan of less than 5 feet. Source: USDA APHIS- Wildlife Service

“Folks in several areas across the state have reported having problems with black vultures attacking small animals,” he said. “In some cases, the birds have been known to attack newborn calves during birth while they are still in the cow’s birth canal before the animal is even completely out.”

Black vultures have also been a growing problem for livestock producers in many other regions of the U.S. In fact, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack presented the 2014 farm bill to the House Agriculture Committee, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R, Tenn.) noted that the black vulture was "plaguing the Southeast." The 2014 farm bill's livestock indemnity program allows farmers who lose livestock to birds that are federally protected to file a claim at their local Farm Service Agency offices.

Unlike the more docile turkey vultures, which are more timid and feed on dead animal carcasses, Smith said black vultures are more aggressive. “They’ve been known to target and kill small live animals including lambs, calves, goats, groundhogs and other wild animals,” he said.

For livestock producers, this issue is even more prevalent during calving, which, for most, is in spring or fall, Smith said.

“These animals are hungry year-round,” he said. “If they can’t find something dead to eat, they will attack live animals – anything outdoors.”

Many cattle producers in many different states have reported damages. The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry estimated this spring that Oklahoma ranchers had lost more than $30,000 worth of livestock to black vultures last year.

Tennessee livestock producers reported losses of 233 cattle to black vultures in 2015, but the Tennessee Farm Bureau announced in June 2016 that it had worked with both state and federal elected and agency personnel to obtain a statewide depredation permit for black vultures from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The bureau planned sub-permits to livestock producers who are experiencing problems with black vultures.

Permits are required because black vultures are migratory and, thus, protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which means producers need a Migratory Bird Depredation Permit in order to take, capture or kill the birds, Smith said.

The permits, which typically cost $100 from FWS, can be obtained for free by livestock producers who are applying for the permit for the first time, he said. Permits are good only for one calendar year, and then producers must reapply.

“Another option producers have to deal with black vultures is to use the birds they kill after they’ve gotten their permit and use it as an effigy to keep other vultures away,” Smith said. “Producers can also hire a taxidermist to stuff the dead vultures that can be hung to resemble a dead bird to keep other vultures away.”

Vultures will not go within eyesight of another dead vulture. In instances of highly variable and hilly terrain within a calving pasture, Smith said multiple effigies may need to be utilized so that one is visible regardless of where the animals may be located in the pasture at any given time.

Other recommendations to scare vultures away include pointing a laser at them or setting off fireworks or making other loud noises.

Economic impact

According to the most recent 2010 data from the Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), 11,900 cattle and calf deaths valued at $4.64 million have been attributed to vultures. USDA estimated the total monetary loss from all cattle/calf predation to be $98.48 million. Black vulture impacts to livestock extend to pigs, goats and sheep, but comparable economic data are not available.

Vultures are also among the most costly species in the U.S. in terms of damage to military aircraft (more than $2.9 million per year) and civil aircraft (more than $1.2 million per year). Only geese and pelicans have a greater economic impact, according to U.S. Air Force bird strike data.

Additionally, both turkey and black vulture species cause property damage to vehicles, houses, office buildings, equipment and various other items. Their roosting on cell towers, water towers, buildings and other tall structures necessitates roost dispersal, cleaning and repairs. The collective economic impacts of these activities are unknown, APHIS noted.

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