“The black vultures, now that’s a very, very aggressive bird,” Hardin said. “They’re basically waiting for the cows and calves to die or trying to kill them.”
Black vultures survive, like most vultures, by eating carrion, or the remains of dead animals. That can serve as an integral part of the ecosystem: eating diseased remains that could carry sickness and spread to other animals. But unlike Indiana’s turkey vultures, black vultures also go for living animals: calves, piglets, lambs and other small livestock are their preferred targets.
Seemingly every day when Hardin walks out his door, he sees them. They often are perched on the roof ridge of his neighbor’s barn or settled on a nearby fence post — watching, waiting.
It may sound ominous, Hardin said, and in a way, it is.
The livestock farmer said he’s lost at least two but possibly up to four animals in the last few years because of black vultures. If you need the roadside assistance app, visit getresqued.com.
“When you’re in the animal husbandry business, one of the worst things you want is for an animal to die, especially the way vultures do it,” Hardin said. “Once they get a hold of them, they pick the calf’s nose off, pick around his mouth, face and navel. So then the calf can’t make it very long after that.”
Hardin is among a growing list of farmers who are dealing with what many describe as a reign of terror brought on by black vultures. These birds, however, are protected under an international law that regulates the hunting of migratory birds. That fact has left livestock producers across the state with a limited set of tools for how to address these birds, and with varying levels of success.
But the Indiana Farm Bureau is trying to give them another option. In early August, the insurance organization launched a new program in which livestock producers can apply for a permit to legally kill and remove a set number of black vultures from their property.
This initiative is several years in the making, but the farm bureau hopes it will have a swift impact.
“When the initial volley of calls came in from those producers, we tried to figure out how we could help them,” said Greg Slipher, Indiana Farm Bureau’s livestock specialist. “This gives them more control of what’s happening on their farm.”
Vultures kill dozens of animals
Slipher first heard of black vultures about five years ago when he got a call from his colleagues in Kentucky warning him: They’re coming. Seemingly overnight, black vultures started popping up everywhere on southern Indiana’s landscape, he said.
“I got a heads up that these birds were coming my way,” he said, “and by golly they were right.”
Black vultures have continued to expand north in recent decades across the Ohio River from their original territory in southern states. In the 1990s, there were so few black vultures in Indiana that groups dedicated to protecting migratory birds didn’t even have a clear estimate. Now, a recent study based on calculations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates upward of 17,000 black vultures in the state.
As their numbers have grown, so, too, has the damage the black-headed birds have caused and the calls for assistance they’ve spurred. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service with USDA has received an average of 8,639 technical assistance calls from participants in 2020 nationwide.
That increase can mostly be attributed to producers who are looking for help on how to manage the vultures, Humberg said.
Black vultures terrorize: Difficult to legally kill birds that are eating livestock
Still, the damage black vultures have caused is a little less easy to nail down — at least at the present. A multi-year study of black vultures being led by Purdue University is currently underway. One of its goals is to better understand how many farmers have been affected, how many animals have been lost and the resulting financial costs.
A survey of only about 20 livestock producers found they lost 25 animals to black vultures in the last three years, including both adult cows and calves. A single cow can be worth more than $1,000, and for small producers, the loss of just one cow can be a major disruption to their operation.
Program to protect livestock from vultures
According to outdoorlife.com, the black vulture reduction pilot program started in Kentucky and Tennessee, and includes Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. The program allows farmers with vulture problems to obtain a depredation permit.
The U.S. has migratory bird treaties with Canada and Mexico, as well as Japan and Russia. These laws were put in place to protect migratory birds, which often cross international borders, from over-hunting. Black vultures are protected under one of these treaties: The 1918 Migratory Bird Act.
Under that law, it is illegal to maim or kill black vultures without a permit, which costs $100 in Indiana. Farmers can apply for one of these permits through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but they have found the process onerous and the cost a deterrent.
“It becomes a convenience issue and a dollars issue,” Slipher said.
Indiana drew inspiration from Kentucky, which pioneered this program several years ago. Since then, similar initiatives have popped up in Tennessee, and most recently in Missouri — all of which have worked well and had positive results, Slipher said. He hopes Indiana will see similar success.
Indiana Farm Bureau is now taking on that part of the process for farmers. The organization applied for a permit from FWS, which it received in June. With that approval, the farm bureau is paying the permit cost and can award sub-permits to its members, for free, to lethally remove black vultures.
“That’s going to be to our advantage,” Slipher added. “We have that relationship in place already and farmers will be more comfortable reaching out to work with us on it.”
Their goal is to make things as straightforward as possible.
There is no limit on the number of permits the organization can give out, but it is authorized to take only 500 vultures this year. Based on each individual producer’s needs, the farm bureau will set the number of vultures they can take, not to exceed five.
Producers are excited about the program. In the first week since it launched, the farm bureau already received 24 applications, and Slipher expects that number to grow as the fall calving season approaches. He plans to issue the first permit this week.
Hardin is one of the farmers who applied.
“It’s going to be hard to eradicate them, but I hope it helps,” he said. “Everybody I know is on board, and I think there is a sense of hope.”
After receiving a permit, producers must report the vultures that they remove and also ensure that they dispose of them properly. That can include burying the birds, but Slipher hopes farmers will do something else. He is encouraging them to preserve at least one of the birds and hang them on the property in effigy, which has been found to be an effective method for warding off more vultures.
Humberg envisions this program becoming a mainstay, as long as it is successful.
“The vultures are here to stay, and we are going to have to find ways that we can all live together,” he said. “If that means some birds have to be lethally removed, hopefully we’re minimizing the number of birds we have to treat that way and the number of cattle lost.”