Protected black vultures pose biosecurity threat to farms, target livestock
Black vulture populations have been steadily increasing in the Delmarva region and livestock farmers have for years been at odds with the large-winged scavenger.
A new effort by Maryland Farm Bureau aims to help producers better control the bird, which has become notorious for attacking young calves and other livestock in open fields.
“The past five years especially, we’ve been hearing a lot of problems and that it’s been getting worse,” said, Tyler Hough, Maryland Farm Bureau’s Eastern region field manager. “They are relentless in their attack of livestock. They’ll do anything they can to kill that young animal.”
Add to that a looming biosecurity risk, enhanced by the recent report of an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza of black vultures in Harford County, Md., where about 100 of the birds were found dead.
“It’s another scare for the producers, just to have them around and carrying something that can be an issue,” Hough said.
As one of 1,100 or so species protected under the century-old international Migratory Bird Treaty Act, using lethal means of control on black vultures without a federal permit is illegal and can result in fines or even jail time.
Non-lethal measures, like removing habitat or firing air canons, are allowed without a permit, but vary in their effectiveness.
“It’s a lot of work on the producer,” Hough said. “In some areas it has worked at modifying the problem or reducing the problem.”
Scott Hipkins, Frederick County farmer, said black vultures have been a persistent problem on his farm for about 15 years.
Over that time, he said he’s lost several calves and a few mothers from his beef herd. The vultures often strike when the cow is in labor and most vulnerable, he said. A former dairyman, Hipkins said he has his beef herd continually calving through the year as opposed to a fall or spring calving herd, so there is continual interest from vultures perched overhead.
Hipkins said he pursued a federal depredation permit to control black vultures on three separate occasions but each time ran into roadblocks and never secured a permit for his operation.
“It was always difficult to get to the right person,” Hipkins said.
He said when he sees vultures threatening an animal, he’s been able to drive into the field and scare them off but with animals in multiple locations and numerous other farming tasks, staking out the fields is unreasonable.
“We can’t be on the farm 24/7,” he said.
Hough said Farm Bureau has heard similar accounts from many farmers throughout the state in dealing with black vultures, prompting the organization to pursue a permit of its own.
After applying in October last year, Maryland Farm Bureau announced in late April it had secured a depredation permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a total of 100 black vultures across the state.
Under that permit, individual producers can apply to Maryland Farm Bureau for up to three lethal takes of black vultures on their operations. Applications are ranked by severity of the farm’s issue, said Hough, who is coordinating the producer permits.
Hough said the permit program in Maryland is modeled after a similar effort in Missouri where black vulture problems have increased.
Farm Bureaus in Kentucky and Indiana have also launched permitting programs to aid producers in controlling black vultures.
Hough said he understands farmers may initially shrug off the effectiveness of taking only three birds when there may be dozens flying around their farms.
“We understand that’s difficult,” he said. “We want to be able to help everyone, but we’re given a limited number of takes from Fish and Wildlife.”
Hough said Farm Bureau and federal officials are urging farmers who are granted a permit to spread out their takes over time and hang them in effigy in the problem areas of the farm.
“These black vultures do not want to be around dead of their own kind,” Hough said, adding their Farm Bureau counterparts in Missouri reported the practice made more of a difference than expected.
“Their response has been great,” Hough said of participation in Missouri.
The Maryland Farm Bureau’s permit is open until Jan. 31, 2023 and with it available for just a few weeks, Hough said several farmers have contacted him.
“We’ve had a solid response,” Hough said. “We’ve had a lot of producers reach out.”
Livestock farmers facing black vulture issues can contact Hough at 410-922-3426, ext. 320 or email@example.com to apply for a permit or get more information.
Black vultures were traditionally found in the southern United States and Central and South America, but have significantly expanded their range to the North and West.
According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Breeding Bird Survey, the black vulture population has been on a steady increase for decades. From 1993 -2015, the population increased 5.85 percent nationwide. Several Mid-Atlantic states were above that.
While Virginia had a 4.46-percent increase, Delaware’s population went up 9 percent, Maryland 12.86 percent, Pennsylvania 11.1 percent and New Jersey 19.7 percent.
While researchers assert the birds’ spread is likely due to a variety of factors including milder winters, Hipkins said the addition of high voltage transmission lines near his farms has exacerbated the issue in his area.
“Those steel towers are like perfect roosting places,” he said. That makes habitat removal and other non-lethal means difficult, he said.
“It’s just like the deer, they get accustomed to their environment and expand,” Hipkins said. “Around here, there’s no pushing them back.”
Vultures are not an issue as far as damage to the towers in Maryland, according to a spokesperson for First Energy, which serves Western Maryland through its subsidiary Potomac Edison.
Will Boye, First Energy advanced communications representative, said in the company’s other service areas, nesting platforms and flight diverters have been installed along power lines to deter large nesting birds and birds of prey from nesting in towers and getting injured by the power lines, both of which can cause power outages.
Hough said Farm Bureau will record information on permits and takes and intends to renew the permit for next year.