HILLSBORO — Black vultures are moving north through southwestern Ohio. They pose a threat to livestock and will kill young animals to feed.
The vultures and what can be done about them were the topic of a presentation to the Highland County Extension Service’s first Winter Farmers Meeting at the Hillsboro Pondorosa, Dec. 10. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Technician Gary A. Ludwig of Greenfield was the guest speaker.
Black vultures are native to the countries of Central and South America. They are migratory birds. In the past 30 years they have been moving steadily north, and had come as far as northern Kentucky by 2000. Since that time, the birds have established a major roosting area near the Rocky Fork Lake dam in Highland County. Ludwig said they are continuing to move their territory northward and are now being seen in Central and Southeast Ohio as well.
Red-headed vultures have been at home in Ohio for at least 100 years. Differing from them in both size and temperment, the Black vultures are aggressive and deadly. In 2018, Ludwig investigated eight cases where new-born calves were killed in the fields by the birds. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) officers have determined that calves are vulnerable to attack for two to three weeks after birth. The birds will also attack lambs and piglets.
The APHIS officers recommend a multi-part strategy for producers dealing with the birds. “There is no silver bullet,” Ludwig said. Strategies for livestock protection from them must be both species and site specific—each farm and each predator is different. “The issues you have to deal with,” he added, when it comes to any wildlife are “ongoing.” Producers should not expect that following these recommendations will automatically solve the problem.
Identify the Culprit
The first requirement to help producers claim reimbursement for Black vulture damage to livestock, is to be sure you’re dealing with Black vultures. To this end, Ludwig described the differences between the Red-heads and their black counterparts. Red-headed vultures are dark brown, with a grayish, lighter underwing that is apparent from the ground when you are looking at them as they soar overhead. They travel on the thermal air currents and their six to six-and-a-half-foot wingspan allows them to move with very little flapping. As they soar, you’ll notice that their wings are a bit above their bodies. They do not acquire their red heads until they reach sexual maturity about a year after they are hatched. Until then, their heads are grey and they can be mistaken for the black vultures. However, Red-headed vultures do not attack live animals; they feed on carcasses of those already deceased. They move on the ground by a combination of hopping and flapping. Their long wings are hard to hold close to the body when they are on the ground and sometimes appear to droop when folded. Their tails are squarish with the feathers bunched together.
Black vultures have the gray-black heads from the time they hatch. The also have longer legs that are placed toward the rear of the body so they can walk more easily on the ground. Their wings are shorter and they must flap them to maintain height in the air; they rarely soar long distances. From below the whitish tips of their underwings are obvious, and the wings are held level with their bodies when they fly. Their tails are shaped like a slice of pie.
Both species nest on the ground in hollow logs and fallen tree trunks or in brushy woods. They can sometimes be found in the haylofts of abandoned barns.
The Black vultures leave very specific damage indicators when they attack. They will first pick out the eyes of the animal they’ve attacked and they will take the end of the tongue. They then attack through the soft tissue areas: the anus, the vagina, the teats, and the underbelly. It is important to take pictures of the animal(s) that have been killed as soon as possible after the attack. This increases the wildlife officer’s chances of making a correct assessment of the killer.
To combat the vultures, focus on “exclusion techniques.”
First, Ludwig said, exclude the birds from the livestock. Whenever possible bring cows ready to calve into a barn or shelter where you can keep an eye on them. Keep the calves and their mothers confined until they have passed their third week. That’s when the vultures seem to lose interest in them. Some producers have found it effective to place large groups of cattle in smaller paddocks within a field and rotate them all together to the next paddock.
If an animal is killed, photograph it as quickly as possible. Then bury or compost the carcass. Don’t leave it on the ground for the vultures to pick over. If it’s left in the field, it gives the the vultures the notion that they have found a safe place to dine and they will return to that area to kill and feed again.
Remove single or isolated trees where the vultures are seen loafing. It is not necessary to take down the entire woodlot. Usually, they congregate in a single tree. Observation is the key to this strategy—once it’s been determined where they are, remove the object they’ve appropriated.
Harrass the vultures. Just driving a four-wheeler along a fenceline where the vultures are hanging around can disturb them enough to cause them to leave, at least temporarily. The wildlife officers have found that pyrotechnics—Bangers and Screamers—are as effective as firing a shotgun, “and it saves you money on shotgun shells,” Ludwig said. “Bangers and Screamers are essentially firecrackers.” He added that if you choose to fire a shotgun in their vicinity, remember not to aim AT them—without a permit, it is not legal to kill the birds. For more information about pyrotechnics for harassing the birds,contact the APHIS officers. They will help producers choose pyrotechnics suited to a particular situation, and will demonstrate how to operate them.
Another harassment technique is hanging a black vulture in effigy. The vultures don’t like to be near dead members of their own clans. Ludwig says that you can hang the bird where the flock congregates—on a tree limb or a nearby fence, and they will move on.
Protected Not Indestructible
A permit is necessary to kill the bird in the first place, since they are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Protection Act. However, producers don’t have to wait for the birds to kill animals before taking action. If they’re hanging around, call the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Filling out the application can be daunting, but an officer will come to your farm to assist you in completing the application and making sure your documentation is in order. First-time permit applications are free under current program rules, but renewals will cost $100. If the birds do kill an animal, the officer can kill a bird so one can be hung while your permit is processed. Having a wildlife officer help you with the forms also ensures that your permit application will go through the system as quickly as possible. Currently, if an application is completed and sent before the end of the business day, the permit may be back to the producer by the end of the next day.
APHIS has a webpage devoted specifically to vultures at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/operational-activities/SA_Vultures/CT_Vultures. There is also a fact sheet at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/wildlife_damage/content/printable_version/fs_vulture_damage_man.pdf. For assistance with a specific problem, contact the Ohio Wildlife office at 866-487-3297 or 614-993-3444.