The Living and the Dead: Black Vultures Expand, Farmers Pay Cost

Illinois producer Gray Tretter lost nine calves to black vulture attacks in 2018. ( Martha de Jong-Lantink, Creative Commons )

Another dead calf. Gary Tretter’s stomach turned as he kneeled over the bloodied remains and noted the telltale loss of both eyes. Once again, predators from above. Black vultures killed nine calves on Tretter’s Illinois farm in 2018. Eyes pecked out and backsides torn to a bloody pulp, the calves were devoured alive—a far cry from carrion or roadkill. “I can’t imagine what the calves go through,” he says. “A coyote or a big cat would be a much better way to go than the damn black vultures. People need to know: They come for the living, not just the dead.”

Tretter’s loss is not in isolation. Livestock producers in the Midwest report expanding black vulture presence. Traditionally ranging in the Southeast, black vulture populations have moved north over the past 40 years, and incidents in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and additional states note increased depredation. Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there is no turnkey solution to the raptor’s expansion as producer concerns mount.


Brent White, 46, maintains a 40-cow herd and backgrounds roughly 50 calves each year atop 460 acres of gentle hills in western Kentucky’s Lyon County on the southern edge of the Fredonia Valley. In 2007, after synchronizing cows on an early May morning, White climbed in his truck just after 5 a.m. to buy breakfast in town for his crew, and passed a rolling field dotted with cows due to calve late. “I could hardly see, but I looked over at what I thought was a lot of turkeys in the pasture.”


In the lifting darkness, White didn’t realize two of the cows had just given birth to a single calf and a pair of twins. Thirty minutes later, with breakfast in hand, he drove back by the same field, now bathed in daylight, and spotted several cows under attack. “I could see one cow charging at something and another running in circles. I got closer and realized my cows were fighting vultures, not turkeys, for the lives of the calves.”

Slamming the truck into park, White ran into the field, but was too late. “They’d already pecked out the eyes of one calf, and started on the hind end of another. That’s where my black vulture education began and I learned the hard way.”

From 2008 to 2011, White lost six additional calves to black vultures. He shared the accounts with area farmers, and says he was met by significant skepticism. “Guys would laugh and tell me, ‘Buzzards eat dead animals.’ Today, they don’t laugh anymore. Go ask those same farmers and they’ll tell you what I said was true. We’ve got a lot of people dealing with this.”

From 2012 to 2018, White lost six more calves, including a corralled, full-grown cow hampered by a hip problem. The calves averaged 90 days or younger, but several were approximately six months old. “It’s heartbreaking to find them. Many times they’re still alive with eyes gone and the back of the neck split open. Emotionally it’ll tear you up.”


Describing vultures as “sharp and opportunistic,” White says the birds utilize chokepoints across his operation. “They work together and take advantage of narrow spots to trap calves. They hang around, watching and learning.”

As a control method, White advocates a concentrated focus on roosts: “I know USDA wants to help producers with our black vulture problem. Wildlife Services needs funding so they can send out teams to target the vulture roosts with night vision goggles and suppressed low-caliber firearms. If they attacked the roosts it would stop the flow.”


Gary Tretter, 39, runs a cow-calf through finish operation, in addition to growing corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat in southern Illinois’ Jackson County. “I’d lost healthy calves before and couldn’t figure out what was killing them, but last year was brutal and I lost nine confirmed calves to black vultures.”

Combining the immediate financial loss with expected revenue, Tretter estimates his total loss in 2018 to black vultures at $20,000. As the deaths (calf ages averaged from newborns to 21 days) mounted, he hired a hand to watch over the herd, expressly in place as a detriment to black vultures, and paid wages for 200 hours of work. “It’s expensive, but much cheaper than losing animals.”

According to Tretter, the vultures’ heaviest presence on his property occurs in late fall through winter. With calves hitting the ground on his operation during the entire year, Tretter isn’t optimistic regarding control methods. “I don’t see a way to truly stop this. Slow them down and scare them? Sure, but I don’t see how to get rid of a federally protected bird. Bare tree limbs, scarecrows, effigies…nothing works. They’re incredibly smart animals and pay close attention to everything.”

Tretter consistently observes vultures behaving in concert with cunning intelligence, using diversionary tactics. “They pay attention to everything. They operate like a gang, dividing up to distract the momma cow, while others go after the calf. They get the momma tired out and she can’t defend the calf. I’ve even seen a 250 lb. calf with two buzzards on either side and a fifth on top of its back.”

“Frankly, I don’t see a solution to this problem. As cattlemen, we’re in a bad situation without a good answer. Lethal permits are available but there is a process and a limited number of kills allowed. I don’t want to eradicate the species; I just want to protect my cattle.”

Hitting Home

A one-year, $100 kill permit (Migratory Bird Depredation Permit) requires clearance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  USDA’s Wildlife Services assists the application by verifying the presence of vultures and damage.


According to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) data, 7,500 black vultures were killed with permits across 24 states in 2017, a marked increase from 3,200 black vultures taken by permit in 2007. (Significantly, black vulture removal via permit also involves aviation hazards or property damage, and is not exclusively livestock related.) Black vulture nests and eggs also cannot be destroyed without a permit. Death Loss in U.S. Cattle and Calves Due to Predator and Nonpredator Causes, 2015, lists the loss to vultures, relative to predator loss, at 5.2% for cattle and 10.3% for calves.

Tom Cooper, chief of the Midwest Regional Migratory Birds Program with USFWS, says the black vulture population is increasing in the U.S.: “Indices from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show the population increasing and their range is expanding to the north, but we’re not certain why. There is no concrete evidence on what is causing the growth.”

“The main states of advance are Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, but they’ve gone north into Missouri and even into Iowa. I know these conflicts are happening in Pennsylvania as well. We hear more and more about depredation issues on newborn calves or lambs.”

The current permit process allows for lethal control when warranted, according to Cooper: “The system in place works. We’ve been working USDA Wildlife Services to educate producers about the black vulture issue and get information to them. I’m very hopeful this path of education will help get landowners the right information so they can respond with non-lethal and lethal techniques as appropriate. We’ve never denied a permit if that is the recommendation given to us through consultation with USDA Wildlife Services. If a lethal take is required, we’ve issued the permit.”

Lee Humberg, Indiana state director of Wildlife Services with USDA, urges concerned producers to contact USDA Wildlife Services state offices for help or direction. “There are still a lot of producers without information about black vultures and we want to use the best means to get it to them.”

“We’ve always had a limited presence of black vultures in Indiana, but only in the extreme south,” Humberg continues. “Now we see them ranging into the middle of the state and the numbers are growing. It’s happening in our neighboring states as well.”

“Black vultures have become a source of conversation for livestock owners who may have never had to deal with the issue, but it’s personal and hits home when they suddenly have the problem on their own farms.”

Permanent Residents?

According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Black Vultures are numerous and their populations increased between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of this very wide-ranging bird at about 20 million, with about 9% living in the U.S. and 8% in Mexico.”

Weighing between 3-5 lb. and sporting an approximate 5’ wingspan, black vultures have keen eyesight, but a relatively weak sense of smell, often following turkey vultures to locate carrion. The birds possess an odd defensive weapon—projectile vomiting, explains Kris Godwin, adjunct assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management, and Mississippi director of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services at Mississippi State University: “They have very acidic, corrosive vomit, and it allows them to digest carrion. They can project vomit several feet as a defense mechanism.”

Black vultures share an inexplicable affinity for rubber, Godwin continues. “They go after boat seats, windshield wipers, coax cables, tractor seats, rubber around gear shifts, rubberized roofing, window seals on cars, and more.”

Ominously, black vultures could be taking up residency in Mississippi, Godwin notes. “Some vultures may be resident birds, and ceasing to migrate. We’re documenting increased black vulture damage and their numbers appear to be going up. With wildlife populations, we never know what direction they’ll go in the future.”


In neighboring Arkansas, black vultures are suspected of establishing a permanent presence, explains Becky McPeake, professor of Wildlife Extension at the University of Arkansas (UA) Division of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service. “Recent evidence points to year-round residents,” she says. “They appear to be staying here all the time. If they don’t have to move, maybe they won’t move. They present a progressive problem that is getting worse.”

Danny Griffin, UA Extension agent for Van Buren County, bolsters McPeake’s perspective. “Over the last few years, they’ve been increasing in numbers and aggression. We’ve definitely noticed an increase in our state, but I can’t say why. It’s all theory, but they seem to be staying here.”

“They kill live animals and their numbers usually increase around calving, but they’ll also go after boats, vehicles or almost anything with rubber parts,” Griffin adds. “That’s what we’re seeing and this type of damage is definitely happening.”


In 2004, Rollin Bach heard about black vulture depredation around the Ohio River, and assumed the accounts were fiction. Six years ago, he became a true believer. Bach, 59, runs a small beef cattle operation stocked with 50 head in southern Indiana’s Crawford County. In the fall of 2013, after giving birth to a stillborn calf, one of his cows was grounded in recovery, unable to rise.

A day later, as Bach approached the pasture to administer medication, he was stunned to see black vultures converging on the cow, still capable of slinging its neck, but not able to defend its back. “She couldn’t get up and they had sneaked around behind, and were eating her back end out while she was alive. I was shocked by their brazenness, and I almost got close enough to kick them off. I shot her to help her because they had destroyed her body. People don’t realize the emotional damage it does to someone to have their cows treated this way.”

After the loss, Bach attempted to keep a close watch over his herd, yet lost two more calves. “I’m not allowed to go out there without a permit and sling lead even though I take a 100% loss on my cows. One of my neighbors has lost seven calves to these buzzards. It’s obvious these birds are here to stay and I believe the problem is just starting. I don’t even believe they’re migrating very far. If so, they don’t take long to get back.”

Eyes to the Sky

Bach isn’t optimistic about black vulture presence and says his frustration is building. “I’m waiting on the next incident because I know it’ll happen again. The buzzards always come back. I don’t know what the answer is, but something is wrong when I can see more and more vultures every year, but I can’t freely protect my cows.”

Tretter doesn’t sugarcoat the black vulture issue, and questions the future. “We’ve got a bad mess with no good answer. Animals move around, nothing stays the same in nature, and weather patterns change, but what happens next? I wish I could say black vultures are here temporarily, but I can’t say that. I can only say what I’ve seen on my land—nine dead calves.”

White echoes Tretter’s concerns. “I truly believe attacking calves and vulnerable cows is a learned behavior. If it is, then these black vultures may get better at it. Unless something changes, this situation is going to get worse.”

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