Swarms of vultures causing problems

Black vultures circle over King's Mountain Gateway Trail. 2013 wire photo.
Black vultures circle over King's Mountain Gateway Trail. 2013 wire photo.

The idea of black vultures turning predatory might sound like the plot of a low-budget horror film, but to Kentucky farmers trying to protect calving cows, that horror has become all too real in recent years. Now it appears farmers are fighting back against the federally protected migratory birds in a big way.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services killed 1,368 black vultures and dispersed 7,491 in Kentucky last year, up markedly from 203 killed and 3,593 dispersed a year before, according to a State Journal analysis of agency data. By contrast, officials killed just 51 turkey vultures last year, down from 118 in 2015, and dispersed 2,898, up from 1,933.

The population of black vultures has been skyrocketing across the commonwealth and perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in Frankfort, where black vultures circle the capital in large swarms and often stretch out their wings from atop roadside lampposts.

Between 2005 and 2015, the population of black vultures in Kentucky is estimated to have grown an average of 10.4 percent per year, according the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a joint effort of the U.S. Geological Survey and Environment Canada. The population of turkey vultures — the black vulture’s relatively docile red-headed cousin, also native to Kentucky — appears to have grown an average of 3.56 percent per year in that time.

“We have two vulture species: the turkey vulture and the black vulture,” said Matthew Springer, assistant extension professor of wildlife management at the University of Kentucky. “The turkey vulture has an incredible sense of smell. The black vulture doesn’t have that. They rely on eyesight and on following turkey vultures.”

Black vultures also occasionally rely on “creating their own carcasses,” in the words of Franklin County Extension Agent Keenan Bishop. “It’s fairly aggressive,” said Bishop. “The turkey vulture doesn’t seem to be as aggressive. They pretty much do their job of cleaning up carrion.”

Indeed, black vulture-related requests of USDA Wildlife Services mostly stemmed from livestock producers dealing with the overly enthusiastic scavengers attacking live cattle, according to Kentucky’s USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service District Supervisor Keith Stucker, who also says calls are likely up due to increased awareness of the problem.

Federal law bars farmers from killing the migratory birds without a permit, which they can obtain for a fee through USDA Wildlife Services. The Kentucky Farm Bureau has also been providing a limited number of sub-permits at no cost since June 2015, according to Franklin County Farm Bureau President Sharon Spencer, who has had to fight off aggressive black vultures on her own farm in recent years.

“We’ve all learned to kind of keep a closer eye on cattle,” said Spencer. “Many have actually taken cattle into the barn or closer to the barn if they are getting ready to calve.”

Still, for locals like Jay Holt, who keeps 600 to 800 head of cattle on 700 acres near the border of Franklin and Anderson counties, it’s not always possible to protect every cow from aggressive black vultures.

“I don’t see every one of my cows every day — it’s just not possible,” said Holt, who noted that today an eight-month-old calf could fetch him $900 and as much as $1,700 just two years ago, at the market’s high. “Every one they killed, it hurt.”

“While it is known that black vultures do depredate live animals on occasion, I would stress that this is not commonplace and producers should not be overly concerned if they see vultures present on their farm,” Kate Slankard, avian biologist for Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, wrote in an email. “Black vultures, in general, eat much more carrion than they do live animals and confirmed incidences of black vulture depredation on livestock are uncommon.”

Officials like Slankard, who examine the evidence afterward, sometimes can’t tell whether predatory vultures were to blame for the death of cattle.

“The problem we are running into overall is that vultures eat dead things,” said Springer. “Was that calf alive or dead when the vulture found it? That’s what we’re trying to figure out. A farmer can come up with a dead calf, but how do we know if a vulture killed it? A vulture pecks out the eyes, the tongue and the rump. They eat those first no matter what because they go for the softest and easiest parts of the body for them to consume. If there’s bleeding at those sites, then the animal was alive when it happened.”

To Holt, who says he has witnessed attacks first hand, there seems little doubt about what was to blame. “I don’t mind buzzards,” he said. “God put everything on this earth for a reason. The red-headed vultures clean up the mess, but there’s something about those black-headed ones.”

Springer recommends farmers dangle dead or fake vultures as effigies to prevent black vultures from congregating near cattle. “The effigy works because they have a pretty strong sense of mortality,” Springer said.