June 20, 2023
Written By Adam Buckallew
Six years after Charlie Besher’s first experience with black vultures, the memory of the encounter remains vivid. He and his wife, Donnia, were checking on their cattle in Perry County, Mo., when they came upon a grisly scene. At least 20 vultures were ravaging the corpse of a newborn calf and attacking its mother.
“It was like walking up on a murder scene,” Besher recalled. “There was blood everywhere.”
The onyx-plumed birds with bald, gray-black heads had plucked the calf’s eyes out. The Beshers chased the vultures away, but the damage had been done. The calf’s mother would eventually die of her infected wounds.
Conflicts between black vultures and livestock producers are becoming more frequent in Missouri as the birds have extended their range farther north. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that black vulture populations in the Show-Me State have grown from 6,900 birds in 2015 to 12,000 birds in 2021—an increase of 73.9%.
Alan Leary, wildlife management coordinator with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said there’s no doubt black vultures are now more prevalent in the state. The scavengers’ historical range has always included southern Missouri, but sightings and nuisance complaints for black vultures are now more common.
“Black vultures are now frequently reported throughout the southern portion of Missouri up to Interstate 70,” Leary said. “We’ve heard from people up to the Iowa border.”
Help is Available
All native North American birds, including vultures, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, prohibiting harm to more than 1,000 avian species. But that doesn’t mean livestock producers are without options for dealing with black vultures causing trouble.
In southeast Missouri, Besher encounters black vultures weekly on his Perry and Bollinger County farms. He has lost 12 cattle to black vultures since 2017, but he said that number would be higher if he hadn’t received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services.
Wildlife Services’ mission is to provide federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and allow people and wildlife to peacefully coexist. David Marks, USDA Wildlife Services assistant state director for Missouri and Iowa, said several proven strategies for dispersing vultures exist.
“We are available to offer advice, suggest ways that livestock producers can address the issue themselves, or, if necessary, we can take direct action,” Marks said.
While black vultures are federally protected, it’s perfectly legal to harass them away. Non-lethal control options include making loud noises with propane cannons or shotgun blasts, firing pyrotechnics or disturbing roosting vultures with laser pointers. One of the most effective tactics is using effigies, hanging dead black vultures or life-like replicas upside down by their feet from trees or fences with their wings splayed outward to spook away other vultures.
“Effigies work well and, many times, they will take care of any problems someone might be having,” Marks said.
Livestock producers can obtain special permits from Wildlife Services or their state Farm Bureau to shoot a limited number of nuisance black vultures for use as effigies. Wildlife Services can also provide frozen black vultures to producers.
“I called USDA, and they got me a permit quickly,” Besher said. “I could then take black vultures I killed and hang them as effigies to scare off others. That’s what has worked best for us. I would hate to see where we would be without USDA’s help.”
Davin Althoff, who manages Missouri Farm Bureau’s black vulture depredation sub-permit program, said he has received a steady stream of applications.
“We’ve had tremendous interest in our sub-permit,” Althoff said. “Last year, we issued 38 sub-permits from April 1 to March 31. We’ve already eclipsed that number, issuing 41 since April 1, 2023.”
The sub-permits issued by Missouri Farm Bureau are free and allow livestock producers to take up to five black vultures per year. Applicants must complete a brief, two-page form that asks for information about livestock losses, the total head of cattle or sheep on the farm, the number of black vulture roosts within five miles, and the estimated number of black vultures per roost in the area. Membership in Missouri Farm Bureau is not required to receive a permit.
Producers can also take steps to limit the attraction of black vultures. Marks encourages producers to move vulnerable livestock into barns or areas near human activity. Once a calf is born, the nutrient-rich placenta should be buried. Proactive removal of livestock carcasses and management of dumping sites is also recommended.
Often portrayed as harbingers of death, vultures are underappreciated for the public good they do as ecological janitors—removing carrion and disease from the environment. Even naturalist Charles Darwin was unimpressed the first time he sighted a turkey vulture from the deck of the Beagle during an expedition to the Americas in 1835. Darwin called it a “disgusting bird” that was “formed to wallow in putridity.”
Lacking the regal majesty of eagles and the charm of colorful songbirds, vultures may be uncharismatic, but the good they do is well-documented. When vultures dine on death, they rid the environment of killer diseases. Studies show that when vulture species in the Indian subcontinent experienced catastrophic die-offs due to poisoning, cases of rabies and anthrax in humans and animals skyrocketed. At the same time, rat and feral dog populations drastically increased.
While vultures prefer fresh roadkill to putrid carcasses, they are not picky and will eat the remains of nearly any vertebrate. The carrion eaters feast on rotting meat with sharp, hooked beaks that can speedily strip away the flesh of disease-ridden carcasses. Researchers who’ve studied the guts of black vultures and turkey vultures say a potent combination of stomach acid nearly as strong as battery acid and a microbiome loaded with gnarly bacteria allow the birds to digest meals that would sicken or kill most other animals.
“Vultures get a bad rap, but they eliminate dangerous diseases and bacteria and keep our ecosystems in tune,” Marks of Wildlife Services said.
Gruesome attacks on young, helpless livestock don’t help with black vultures’ image problem. Unlike their peaceful cousin, the turkey vulture, black vultures can gang up and prey on calves, piglets, lambs, newborn goats, and sick or otherwise weakened animals. The vultures often target soft tissues first, eviscerating eyeballs, tearing out tongues and nipping at navels.
Marks said it’s easy to understand why livestock producers can assume the worst when they see black vultures devouring their livestock.
“If you walk into your field and see a dead calf and a flock of vultures in a feeding frenzy, it’s not hard to come to that conclusion,” Marks said. “But things are not always as they seem. We know there’s always a percentage of calves that are stillborn or have serious congenital issues that won’t survive, regardless of the situation. We get many calls about suspected depredation, but after conducting a necropsy, we often find the calves were already dead before the vultures began feeding.”
Professional wildlife biologists like Marks are working to further develop non-lethal black vulture control tactics to provide livestock owners with options that resolve depredation problems while maintaining sustainable populations of the native scavengers. They plan to study where the birds go after dispersal, how far they travel, and determine whether black vultures return to sites of conflict.
“The black vultures aren’t going away, and the limited permits are not part of an eradication program,” Marks said. “That’s not the goal, but we want to help prevent damage. It’s all about balancing native wildlife conservation with protecting humans, livestock and our natural resources.”
KNOW YOUR VULTURES
Two species of vultures are native to Missouri: black vultures and turkey vultures. While turkey vultures may appear black from a distance, they can have dark-brown or black plumage with a featherless bright red head. Black vultures have sooty dark feathers, bare black heads and shorter tails. Turkey vultures extend V-shaped wing patterns when soaring, while black vultures hold their wings out straight and have white stars at their wingtips.
Both species operate as opportunistic scavengers, cleaning the environment of carrion. While searching for food, black vultures fly at higher altitudes than turkey vultures to monitor predators and other scavengers visually. Whereas turkey vultures use their keen sense of smell to sniff out carcasses, black vultures rely on sight and will follow turkey vultures to find meals.