SALEM, Ohio — Fairfield County cattleman Dick Kilbarger saw it with his own eyes: Eight or 10 black vultures spread in a semi-circle across his pasture, backing a cow and her newborn calf into a corner.
He sat a ways back on his ATV, just watching. But when those birds got too close, got too comfortable with tiring that cow and trying to cut her calf away from her protection, he swooped in to protect the herd.
He’d already seen what the vultures intended: to peck the eyes out of the calf, to disorient it, then go to work at killing it.
“They’re just damn vicious, mean, ugly birds,” he says of the black vultures that have made their presence known in the county.
“Hard cotton-pickin’ things to kill, too.”
“It’s disheartening, and another obstacle in the production cycle,” said Kilbarger, who manages a herd of about 100 commercial brood cows near Bremen, Ohio.
“You hate to see them taking a baby calf and killing it when there’s plenty of dead deer laying around they could be going after.”
Judging by the number of calls he’s received from producers in the past three years, Ohio State University Extension wildlife specialist Stan Gehrt agrees that vulture numbers are increasing in Ohio.
Compared with West Virginia, where there’s a sizable established colony of black vultures that cause “pretty dramatic” damage, Ohio is still relatively unscathed, according to Gehrt.
But those West Virginia birds are moving northward, he said, giving Ohio livestock producers a whole new predator to deal with.
Black vultures are not the same as a turkey vulture, sometimes called a turkey buzzard, Gehrt said.
Black vultures are slightly smaller than turkey vultures and have a black head, whereas the more common turkey vulture has a reddish head, he said.
What sets the two species apart most is their behavior, Gehrt said.
Turkey vultures are mild-mannered and timid, the expert explained, and tend to scavenge on dead animals and roadkill. Black vultures, on the other hand, can be aggressive and will kill living animals, such as lambs and calves on farms, and groundhogs and other wild animals.
“These things go after an animal in groups. There can be five or six of them, all the way up to dozens,” Gehrt said, adding other states have reported colonies of hundreds of vultures.
“We’re not at a critical level yet here in Ohio, and we hope it doesn’t get to that point,” Gehrt said. “But they are expanding their range, and we may end up with large colonies like other states.”
Black vultures are not the same as a turkey vulture. Black vultures are slightly smaller than turkey vultures and have a black head; the more common turkey vulture has a reddish head.
Since July 1, 2007, only five Ohio counties — Adams, Brown and Highland in the southwestern part of the state, and Fairfield and Knox in east-central Ohio — have seen vulture-related payouts from the state’s indemnification program, according to department of agriculture spokesman Bill Schwaderer.
That program compensates producers fair market value on animals proven to have been killed by black vultures or coyotes.
Producers in those counties have already collected more than $3,900 this year from the state for their livestock losses tied to vultures, the highest figure since the program kicked off in 2005.
Last year, Kilbarger collected $100 for one calf killed by the vultures. He said the indemnity program and the legwork necessary to participate aren’t convenient, but that getting a little money to compensate for the loss does help out.
“But it doesn’t make everything better,” he said.
Though the vultures aren’t endangered, they are migratory birds and are protected under federal law, Gehrt said. That means even if you see a group of vultures circling your pasture, you’re nearly helpless.
“You can’t just take a gun and shoot them without a special permit,” he said.
Those migratory bird depredation permits are available from the Division of Wildlife but are issued only after the agency determines there’s an excessive problem on your farm that’s causing a significant economic burden, Gehrt said.
Kilbarger has one of the permits, and used it to kill one black vulture last year, and one more this year. He appreciates that the permit allows him to shoot at the birds, even if he doesn’t kill one.
“I’ve found they’re kind of timid after you’ve shot at them once or twice,” he said.
For those who can’t secure a permit, there are other methods to keeping vultures at bay, Gehrt said.
Any livestock owner can take preventive measures, such as keeping young lambs and calves penned inside and out of harm’s way.
In areas where the vulture problem is more chronic, producers can try electronic noise harassment. Gehrt said a popular method used now on turkey vultures is audible firecracker shells.
Another method often used is an effigy, which is a stuffed vulture that’s hung from a pole or limb to simulate a dead bird and discourage others from coming into the area. Kilbarger uses the birds he’s shot this way, he said.
“Black vultures are very smart birds, and that’s one of the problems with them,” Gehrt said. “They eventually figure it out and then [control methods] don’t work anymore.”
Gehrt warns that although sightings of black vultures often cause panic or dread in rural areas, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Not all black vultures will become a threat to stock. It’s not that anytime you see one there’s an immediate threat. But if you do see them, keep an eye on them,” he warned.
To report a predator loss by black vultures to the Ohio Department of Agriculture for reimbursement under the indemnity program:
If the dog warden determines that the kill was not by a predator, then no further steps need to be taken as there is no claim under the indemnity program.
Photos taken of the injuries and any other pertinent facts must accompany this document. If the animal injured or killed is a registered animal, then registration papers should also accompany the indemnification form.
If the wildlife officer disaffirms the claim of the dog warden, the owner has no claim under the ODA indemnity program.
If the wildlife officer affirms or states that he is uncertain about the determination of the dog warden, the wildlife officer must notify the ODA, in writing, of the determination.