Federally Protected Black Vultures May Be ‘Eating Cows Alive’ in the Midwest

Farmers are seeking permits to cull any raptors harming their livestock, but experts say reports of vicious attacks are exaggerated

A photo of a black vulture perched on a tree branch
Scientists suspect that the vultures have expanded into Indiana in the past few decades because of climate change and changes in land use. Rangerbob 13 via Wikicommons under CC BY 4.0

The American black vulture (Coragyps atratus) are easy to spot with their dark, sooty plumage, bald black heads, and short tails. Also known as a carrion crow, the large raptor measures 22 to 29 inches in length with a wingspan of roughly five feet.

The vultures typically feast on the carcasses of dead animals, but news reports suggest they may have started "eating cows alive" in the Midwest, reports Sarah Bowman for the Indianapolis Star.

"The black vultures, now that's a very, very aggressive bird," John Hardin, a cattle farmer in southern Indiana, tells the Indianapolis Star. "They're basically waiting for the cows and calves to die or try to kill them."

Unlike the turkey vulture, black vultures are bolder and may prey on living animals from calves, lambs, piglets, and other small critters. Harding says the vultures often pick at a calf's nose, navel, face, and mouth, reports Newser's Kate Seamons.

Black vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which prohibits capturing, killing, selling, trading, or transporting migratory bird species without authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Harming the vultures without a permit can result in jail time or high fines. In August, the Indiana Farm Bureau introduced a program that will allow farmers to secure a license to kill the birds of prey as an effort to aid farmers in protecting their livestock, Newser reports.

The Indiana Farm Bureau will pay the $100 fee it costs to obtain a permit and undergo the lengthy process it takes to get federal permission to kill birds causing damage, reports Jim Robbins for the New York Times. The black vulture culling programs began in Kentucky and Tennessee but have since expanded into other states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, reports Bob McNally for Outdoor Life.

There are no limits on how many permits the Indiana Farm Bureau can give out, but the organization can only cull 500 vultures per year. Farmers using the permit can't kill more than five vultures, per the Indianapolis Star. After receiving the license, cattle producers must report the number of vultures they harvest and dispose of them properly.

FormerCornell Lab of Ornithology director John W. Fitzpatrick suspects the vultures are not targeting healthy calves, however, and he is against authorizing permits for killing the protected species, the New York Times reports. Fitzpatrick further noted that the idea that black vultures are predatory needs to be further studied.

"They are often seen around calves in trouble that are stillborn or dying, and they jump in on them quickly," Fitzpatrick tells the New York Times. "The idea that they are predatory on livestock is false."

The phenomenon of black vultures moving north is relatively recent. Scientists suspect that the vultures have expanded into Indiana in the past few decades because of climate change and changes in land use, per a Purdue University statement. Black vultures are historically common in southern states.

Scientists at Purdue University and the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services are working with cattle producers to gain insight into the black vulture's predation habits. In turn, this information could be used to find ways to stop vultures from harming cattle. Farmers can help by donating calves that they suspect were killed by black vultures to the lab or fill out an online survey about concerns related to livestock losses and their experiences with black vultures, per a statement.

"We don't know enough about the biology of these vultures to understand why some birds become predatory or the differences between how they scavenge and how they kill an animal," Patrick Zollner, a quantitative ecologist at Purdue, says in a statement. "If we can get enough of these predated calves to study, we can learn what evidence is needed to help producers file successful claims to the USDA Farm Service Agency's indemnity program to receive compensation for their losses."

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