Opportunistic Killers: Black Vultures

Removing black vultures via permit also involves aviation hazards or property damage and is not exclusively livestock related. ( Chart Source: APHIS Photo: 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 isolated. Livestock producers in the Southeast and Midwest report expanding black vulture presence. Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there’s no turnkey solution to the raptor’s expansion as producer concerns mount.

Brent White maintains a 40-cow herd and backgrounds roughly 50 calves each year on the gentle hills in western Kentucky’s Lyon County. In 2007, White spotted several cows under attack in the pasture. “I could see one cow charging at something and another running in circles. I got closer and realized my cows were fighting vultures for the lives of the calves,” he says.

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,” he says.

From 2008 to 2018, White lost a dozen more calves.

In southern Illinois’ Jackson County, Gary Tretter runs a cow-calf through finish operation, in addition to crop production. “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 cattlemen, we’re in a bad situation. 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,” Tretter says.

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

Rollin Bach runs a small beef cattle operation 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.

A day later, as Bach approached the pasture, he was stunned to see black vultures converging on the cow. “She couldn’t get up and they were eating her back end out while she was alive. I shot her to help her because they had destroyed her body,” he says.

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.”

Tretter doesn’t sugarcoat the black vulture issue, and questions the future. “We’ve got a bad mess with no good answer. 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.” 

To learn more about the black vulture problem, visit bit.ly/black-vultures