They’ll devour slimy newborn calves, full-grown ewes and lambs alive by pecking them to death. First the eyes, then the tongue, then every last shred of flesh.
That’s the way an article about vultures begins in a June edition of the Louisville Courier Journal. The piece, which has since been picked up and syndicated by the Associated Press, goes on to describe how vultures have become so plentiful that they are now “desperate for food” and stalking and killing live prey. Newborn farm animals are in danger—along with their parents.
Oh, and “small pets may be at risk too.”
The piece, which was printed under the headline “Black vultures are roosting in Kentucky and eating animals alive,” concludes by calling the birds “flying fiends.”
“I’m not surprised,” says Katie Fallon, author of Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. “Every few months it seems like somebody writes something stretching the truth or just including false information or descriptions that certainly don’t strike me as being good journalism.”
Vultures do get a bad rap. We don’t typically view these birds as majestic native icons, as we do bald eagles, and when we see a vulture, it tends to have its face buried in a rotting carcass. In short, vultures have an association with death, and death creeps us out.
But bald eagles get a ton of their calories from scavenging the dead, too, Fallon points out, and nobody shivers or utters a prayer when eagles soar above or dive-bomb their prey.
So then, let’s examine what’s really happening in Kentucky.
First, do vultures ever kill animals outright?
Yes and no.
Of the three vulture species native to the United States, the article mentions two, turkey vultures and black vultures. The third is the endangered California condor. (All three vultures fall under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, so killing any of them without a federal permit is illegal.) The condor, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act, only eats dead things. As for turkey vultures, Fallon says there is no scientific evidence that they attack livestock.
But black vultures have in fact been known to dabble in predation. These birds are slightly bigger and more aggressive than turkey vultures, and scientists have documented black vulture depredation, though the birds seem to prefer small or weak targets, such as newborn piglets, turtle hatchlings, or an injured capybara. Perhaps the most extensive research into black vultures feeding on livestock is a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that followed 115 reports of black vulture attacks on livestock in Virginia from 1990 to 1996.
Are vulture numbers on the rise?
Yes—at least relatively.
We know black vultures have been present in the American South and Midwest at least since the time of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, which was printed between 1827 and 1838.
However, there wasn’t much bird counting going on in this country until 1966, when the North American Breeding Bird Survey began. It’s true that vulture numbers have risen since then, likely due to the ban of DDT, a nasty pesticide that weakened the shells of birds’ eggs and caused widespread population declines in birds of prey. An increase in delicious roadkill may have also helped to boost vulture numbers as more and more cars have hit the road on more and more highways.
Reports of conflicts between wildlife and livestock have also risen in conjunction with black vulture numbers, says Kate Slankard, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, but she doesn’t think seeing the scavengers near livestock is cause for concern. “ Black vultures still eat a lot more roadkill than they do live prey,” she says.
Have higher vulture numbers “made them more desperate for food in other forms—even alive,” as the Courier Journal article states?
“I don’t think that ‘exploiting new food sources’ would necessarily be an accurate way to describe the situation,” says Slankard. “Vultures have always been known to show up at cattle birthing sites, mostly because they are interested in afterbirth as a food source.”
Slankard, who fields complaints about vultures for the state, says much of what she hears could be chalked up to a cow’s being exhausted after childbirth, rather than the result of an outright attack. When vultures hang around a birthing site, she explains, the mother may become anxious and move around more than normal. She may even become so exhausted that she or her calf dies in the process.
“In these circumstances, the cow was not pecked to death by the vultures,” says Slankard. “But the vulture harassment likely caused the cow and sometimes the calf to die.”
Do vultures “play with” or “taunt” newborn calves in an attempt to kill them, as one farmer described?
“I can’t imagine that actually happened,” says Fallon. “Vultures want whatever’s easiest. They want something to be dead, something that’s not moving.”
Slankard too doubts that vultures toy with calves or play with their prey to get them to lower their guard “before they peck out their eyes,” as the article states. “Vultures are not graceful birds,” she says. They are clumsy and can be indecisive about attacking, but she wouldn’t characterize their behavior as “taunting.”
Can a group of vultures kill and skin a calf “in minutes”?
Again, no. These big, awkward birds aren’t piranhas.
“They are not a fast animal,” says Slankard. “It probably takes a group of vultures a few days to clean off a carcass.”
By the way, cleaning carcasses is a good thing. Every time one of these scavengers swoops down onto a bit of roadkill or a rotting animal in the woods, it neutralizes active reservoirs of pathogens such as anthrax, botulism, cholera, rabies, and polio, which get burned to a crisp in the birds’ acidic guts. To be sure, this will be small comfort to the farmers who have lost an animal, but let’s give credit where it’s due.
Are vultures a threat to small pets?
Slankard reiterates that turkey vultures are not aggressive and do not tend to attack animals. As for black vultures, “I have not received any complaints about black vultures attacking cats and dogs,” she says. “I did receive one complaint about a black vulture killing a chicken. The chicken was in a pen that did not have a roof, so the vulture probably saw it as easier prey.”
Are black vultures a significant threat to livestock?
In the Courier Journal article, Joe Cain, commodity division director for the Kentucky Farm Bureau, estimated that each year “Kentucky farmers lose around $300,000 to $500,000 worth of livestock to these native vultures.”
When I asked Cain to specify how many cows and sheep those numbers might equate to, he said he couldn’t say exactly, since the value of farm animals fluctuates from year to year. He said there are reported losses for hogs, sheep, goats, and free-range poultry, but most losses involve cattle. Of these 1,000 to 2,000 annual cattle deaths, the vast majority are young calves, along with just 10 or so full-grown cows and 25 larger “feeder calves” (castrated males being fattened up for sale to the slaughterhouse).
“I feel the numbers could be significantly higher because I have had some producers report as many as 12 losses in the past year,” Cain added.
Fallon, on the other hand, says it’s really difficult to determine if a black vulture actually killed a cow or calf or was just found feeding on an animal that had died from another cause. “I would imagine that it’s mostly scavenging on the carcasses, but it’s hard to say it would never have happened,” says Fallon. “But does it happen as often as it’s reported? Probably not.”
True or false: “There isn’t much defense against black vultures and turkey vultures.”
For starters, both Fallon and Slankard have been clear: Turkey vultures pose no threat and thus don’t require any defense. And black vultures aren’t unstoppable monsters either. They’re birds. Birds that weigh about as much as a chihuahua. Birds that don’t have talons and whose bites are less powerful than a parrot’s.
Even so, the Courier Journal article notes how farmers can apply for special federal permits to shoot vultures—a measure that Fallon describes as very 18th-century and unnecessary. Farmers simply being present at the time of a livestock birth would be enough to scare the birds away, she says. In fact, the producers she’s spoken with who do attend birthings as a matter of practice say they never experience any vulture issues. Putting animals in barns when they’re due to give birth soon would also eliminate the problem.
Likewise, Slankard says livestock guard dogs are an effective long-term solution.
Are vultures good for the ecosystem, or are they “flying fiends”?
The Courier Journal article says both. But it leans pretty heavily on the flying fiends angle, as have most reprints and subsequent press coverage. (A couple of examples of headlines: “Why vultures are eating animals ALIVE in Kentucky” and “Winged terror: Vultures eat livestock & pets alive in Kentucky.”)
Headlines about birds eating big animals alive do get clicks and comments and shares, but they also do a disservice to species that are no more unnatural or nefarious than owls, hawks, or any other bird that eats flesh.
“It just seems really inappropriate to me,” says Fallon. “You’re anthropomorphizing the bird and making it sound like what it’s doing is sinister, when it’s doing exactly what it evolved to do.”
So OK, yes, maybe sometimes black vultures start eating an animal while it’s still alive. But many other beloved species do the same. Woodpeckers do it. Red squirrels do it. Pandas and deer and sheep do it. Animals kill and eat other animals to survive. This is not news, fake or otherwise.
Protect livestock, sure. But also appreciate that vultures have been on the landscape a lot longer than farmed cattle and sheep. If a few vultures have found a way to exploit our agricultural practices in their habitat, then we can surely find a way to steer the birds away from vulnerable livestock that isn’t just shoot ’em all.
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