Black vultures are killing newborn livestock across Oklahoma and their territory is expanding
Ranchers across the Great Plains are battling black vultures, a federally protected bird that has a reputation for killing newborn livestock. While the birds play a major ecological role, their expanding population is becoming a big nuisance for producers.
Yancy Paul recalls rushing across his lush-green pasture early last spring, opening gate after gate to get to his newborn calf that was swarmed by flocks of black vultures.
“Before I could get to him, it was probably 40 or 50 of them just plucking at that newborn calf,” Paul said.
The rancher helps his parents, Beth and Jim Little, raise beef cattle and sheep at their 800-acre farm in Lexington, Oklahoma. He said he’d heard about black vultures preying on newborn livestock, but it was a sight he had never seen. Now, he said he’ll never forget it.
“They literally pick holes in them,” Paul said. “I mean they just start with their eyes and in their backside and then just start pecking holes in their guts.”
Paul is among the growing number of farmers and ranchers who say they are losing newborn livestock like calves, lambs and piglets to black vultures. The birds normally migrate from South America through the southeastern U.S., but black vultures have expanded their range northward into Missouri, Indiana and Illinois over the past decade.
Although there’s not a lot of research on why black vulture populations are expanding north, one theory is that warmer weather is shifting the birds' behavior, said Travis Guerrant, a wildlife biologist and state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-Wildlife Services for Missouri and Iowa.
“The winters are a lot more mild than they ever had been in the past,” Guerrant said. “When you have a milder winter then you have more food availability. They can then survive throughout the year in some of these areas and persist.”
The sooty-black birds have a five-foot wing span and weigh about five pounds. They’re related to turkey vultures, which have distinct bright-red heads, but black vultures are known to be the bolder bird of the two.
“For the most part, black vultures strongly prefer scavenging,” said Marian Wahl, a doctoral student studying black vulture management at Purdue University. “But when the opportunity arises, and there's a particularly vulnerable animal, they are happy to take advantage of that.”
That’s a big issue for livestock producers.
In Oklahoma alone, ranchers lose around $200,000 worth of livestock each year to black vultures, said Scott Alls, the state director of wildlife services. There’s also the lost time and effort that went into raising the livestock — and the added grief of knowing their animals experienced a gruesome death.
“I was very, very upset,” Paul said. “We take care of these animals like they’re our babies and for a calf to die like that, it’s just horrible.”
Black vultures aren’t an easy bird to scare away, and because they’re protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, producers can’t legally kill the scavenger bird without federal permission.
“We do offer depredation permits for farmers to take some of these nuisance birds,” said Ken Richkus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division Chief of Migratory Bird Management. “But when we do authorize that lethal take, we do need to make sure that it's sustainable. There’s also some accountability associated with it so we live up to our obligations under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.”
Depredation permits issued directly from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cost $100 and must be renewed each year. But sub-permits issued under the Black Vulture Livestock Protection program are free and allow producers to kill up to five black vultures per year.
Missouri, Oklahoma and Illinois are among the states that adopted the USFWS program when it launched in 2021. Since then, the Missouri state legislature has invested in developing a partnership between agriculture and wildlife state agencies to get the word out about black vulture management.
Guerrant said one useful way producers can use their sub-permits is to hang each black vulture they kill in a tree as an effigy.
“You hang (the vulture) upside down, wings splayed,” he explained. “Vultures are intelligent animals, and they don't like being around their own dead.”
Chris Cloud, a beef cattle producer in Carthage, Missouri, said he’s lost $10,000 worth of calves to black vultures this year. But since receiving his sub-permit, he said he’s found the scarecrow-like tactic helpful in keeping black vultures off his farm.
He’s used four of his five allotted takes so far and has hung each black vulture in trees where he’s noticed groups of 10 to 20 birds roosting at a time.
“It’s solved about 99% of my problems,” Cloud said. “The sad thing is though, if I keep them off my property, all they're going to do is go to somebody else's property.”
Wahl, the Purdue doctoral student, acknowledges it’s difficult to know how far a flock of vultures move after dispersal, as there’s still little that is known about their behavior.
But as she studies how to best manage black vultures, she said using lethal tactics alongside non-lethal tactics, like moving herds closer to humans during calving season or shooting off fireworks to scare off the vultures, have turned out to be the most effective.
“Lethal permits on their own are never going to be a fantastic solution,” Wahl said. “There's always going to be more black vultures drifting in. Really the goal is to send the message to vultures that it’s a dangerous place to be.”
Something else wildlife experts aren’t too sure about is how often black vultures actually kill their prey.
“It's very difficult to tell when black vultures are actually responsible for something and when they're just at the scene of the crime,” Wahl said. “They're very good at making themselves look guilty.”
As part of her research, Wahl has set up a “black vulture restaurant,” in which she places already dead bait to attract the vultures and observe their eating habits.
It’s meant to help Wahl learn what it looks like when black vultures scavenge an animal that they haven't killed, like a stillborn cow. By recording the black vultures’ eating, she’s able to see which parts of the animal they target when in scavenger mode and how fast it takes for them to eat their meal.
“But one problem in identifying the predation versus scavenging is that vultures tend to eat whatever evidence there may have been,” she explained. “If vultures have a long enough time, you end up with something that's been almost completely skeletonized.”
Wahl said identifying whether a black vulture is the culprit for killing livestock or if they’ve scavenged a stillborn calf can help ranchers determine whether their herds have health issues that need to be addressed.
It’s also important to recognize the ecological service black vultures provide to everyone, Wahl said. She describes black vultures as “nature’s garbagemen.” By feasting on carcasses, they destroy deadly diseases like rabies and tuberculosis.
To understand what could happen if vultures are killed off, Wahl pointed to India, where some areas have experienced a 99% decline in vulture populations due to diclofenac poisoning in the 1990s. Places with fewer vultures saw more cases of diseases affecting humans.
“We really want to keep the vultures around here, keep them with their healthy populations,” she said. “We just want to make sure that while we have those healthy populations, they're not also killing livestock.”
Wahl and Guerrant said it’s important for people to learn how to live with black vultures, because as long as conditions are right, the migratory birds are here to stay.
As for Oklahoma livestock producers Yancy Paul and his mom, Beth Little, they continue to worry about protecting their herds from vultures as lambing season starts in the fall.
“I don't want to eradicate them, but I want to eradicate them from our area,” Little said. “We just can't afford another attack.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.