Black vulture populations are growing, as are the risks to young livestock
A vicious bird is being seen more and more in the Ozarks region, and there have been reports of groups attacking young livestock, making it a threat to the agriculture industry.
The black vulture, according to Missouri Department of Conservation State Ornithologist Sarah Kendrick, is native to Missouri, but their occurrence in the state is increasing due to expansion of their range since the early 2000s. Prior to 2004, black vultures were only known to breed in the extreme southeast or southern tier of counties in south-central and southwest Missouri. Since that time, their range has crept up into the Ozarks and a fairly large wintering population occurs below Table Rock Lake.
Farmers and ranches are feeling the impact of the increased population ‑ and it’s appetite. Producers have reported losses of newborn calves, some hours old or less, and older calves. Black vultures have also attacked cows while calving. Because cows often leave the safety of a herd to calve, they are quickly outnumbered while trying to protect their new calf from the predators. Birds typically attack the eyes of an animal to disorient it before going for the kill.
Over the course of two years, Dylan Massa of Liberal, Mo., said his family lost 15 calves to black vultures.
“A momma might lay her calf down in the shade and as the day went on, she would move, but the calf would stay,” he told OFN. “She might not get 10 feet away from that calf and they were on it… I saw it happen, my dad saw it happen and so did my grandpa, but we couldn’t always get to them quick enough to get them away from the calves.”
The biggest death-loss years for Massa were in the late summer and early fall of 2011 and 2012.
Despite being a threat to livestock, producers like Massa are not allowed to kill the offending birds. The black vulture is protected by federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty.
“The MBTA makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests or eggs of such a bird without valid federal permits,” Kendrick told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor. “The MBTA was signed 100 years ago this year and protected birds at a time when many species were being killed for their feathers or body parts. The Migratory Bird Treaty was signed in 1916 between the U.S. and Canada (technically Great Britain for Canada) and the MBTA was the law that followed in 1918. Additional treaties were later signed with Mexico, Japan, and Russia to protect our nation’s shared bird species that migrate across borders.”
There are an estimated 20 million black vultures worldwide, Kendrick said, and data from annual Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts show an increase in the bird’s population in Missouri in the last 50 years.
Missouri Department of Conservation Wildlife Damage Biologist Joshua Wisdom said attacks appear to be more frequent in the early fall and in the spring months, following the migration pattern of the vultures. Calves are not the only targets, according to Wisdom. Goat kids and lambs are much smaller than calves, making them easy targets for vultures.
Both Wisdom and Kendrick said there is no “silver bullet” to end the issue between livestock producers and the black vulture, but there are options.
Every case is different, Wisdom said, when trying to keep vultures away from pastures and livestock, but what seems to be the most effective is an effigy.
“It works better if you can take an animal from that group or flock and hang it in a tree, but you’ll need a permit for that,” Wisdom said.
“Hanging the dead bird in a prominent location as an effigy where the other vultures will see may keep them from returning,” Kendrick added.
Effigies can also be Canada goose decoys or wings attached to bowling pins that are painted black.
“I’ve also seen silhouettes made out of plywood or rubber matting,” Wisdom said. “There are also Halloween decorations that look like vultures, and people have had some success with those.”
The harassment of birds is also legal, as long as birds are not being injured or killed.
“You can shoot pyrotechnics in the air, shoot guns in the air, bang pots and pans together, shoot a cannon or whatever,” Wisdom said. “If birds are roosting on top of your barn or hanging out in tree tops, you can use a green or a red laser.”
Kendrick said green or red 200mW laser can spook the birds, and are not hard to find. However, lasers have to be used in low-light conditions to work well.
The removal of dead tress from along fence lines dramatically reduced the number of birds spotted on the Messa farm, and they have had few losses that can be attributed to black vultures since the removal.
It’s also recommended that producers move livestock that are close to giving birth or with young off spring to a location that can be closely monitored at all times.
“You have a smaller space to monitor,” Wisdom said. “Some of these guys loosing calves aren’t able to check on them multiple times day.”
“Flocks of 20 to 50 birds can do some damage, but black vultures’ distribution across the landscape is very sporadic. If you can pen or watch your vulnerable or young animals for a few days, the flock will usually move on,” Kendrick said.
Getting a permit
Producers may apply for a depredation permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Producers must obtain a Form 37 from the USDA Wildlife Service to accompany their permit. State conservation departments do not issue permits.
“You’re not going to be able to shoot your way out of this,” Wisdom said. “You’re not going to get 200 birds, and you’re not going to get a permit to do that, but all that information will come from Fish and Wildlife, and they might put restrictions on that permit.”
If a producer obtains a permit, they are reminded not to destroy the birds, but use them as an effigy.
The permit application-processing fee is typically $100, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kendrick said despite the threat to livestock, the black vulture has its place.
“They play an irreplaceable ecological role of reducing disease by removing animal carcasses from the landscape and are amazing creatures,” she said.
MDC officials encourage those who see black vultures nesting in their area to contact their local conservation office.
Payments for Livestock Loss
The Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), which is part of the 2014 Farm Bill, provides benefits to livestock producers for deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by adverse weather, attacks by animals reintroduced into the wild by the federal government or protected by federal law, including avian predators.
Information from the Farm Service Agency states that livestock owners or contracted growers must provide evidence acceptable to the FSA providing the loss occurred directly caused death.
LIP payments for owners are based on national payment rates that are 75 percent of the market value.
For more information, contact your local Farm Service Agency.