John Hardin has never had a problem with Turkey Vultures. The scavengers dispose of carrion around the Indiana farm where he raises about 40 cows and their calves. “They’ve always just cleaned up the dead animals,” he says. “They would never be aggressive.”
Then a different bird descended on his fields. Over the past several decades, in a shift scientists suspect is tied to climate change, Black Vultures have expanded their range from the South into the Midwest, north along the Appalachian Mountains, and up the East Coast into Canada. The population has also boomed, possibly in response to the 1972 ban on the insecticide DDT. In Indiana, Black Vultures were fairly scarce until the 1990s. Today more than 17,000 live across the state.
Unlike their redheaded cousins, the recent arrivals sometimes prey on the living. Black Vulture attacks, infrequent but devastating, typically occur when a cow, sow, or ewe is giving birth. “They just keep working on her until they wear her out,” Hardin says. The birds kill and eat newborns in gruesome fashion; occasionally they maim the mother beyond saving. Hardin says he’s lost six calves over the past three years.
It’s a growing complaint in farm country. In 2015 livestock producers reported 2.1 million calf deaths to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They blamed Black Vultures for 10 percent of calves killed by predators—up from 6 percent in 2010—and 1 percent of total deaths. More than 4 in 10 Kentucky and Indiana farmers surveyed by Purdue University in 2021 said Black Vultures had killed at least one of their animals in the past year.
Residents of Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and other states unaccustomed to the species are learning why they’ve long been considered a nuisance in the South. The birds pull caulk from windows, shingles from roofs, and windshield wipers from cars. They occasionally collide with aircraft. And as barnyard clashes increase, some livestock producers are at their wits’ end and looking for relief. The furor has even reached Capitol Hill: In March U.S. Reps. John Rose (R-TN) and Darren Soto (D-FL) introduced a bill that would allow farmers and ranchers to kill Black Vultures, which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, without a permit. (Its prospects appear doubtful.)
Evidence suggests, however, that the birds don’t kill as many animals as fed-up farmers think they do. And their rebound has clear upsides: Vultures are ecological essential workers who clean carcasses, purge pathogens, and halt the spread of disease. At a time when many birds are in decline, the Black Vulture boom is a success story that raises questions about human tolerance for species that thrive inconveniently in our presence.
Black Vultures are scavengers first and foremost. But when seen picking apart a calf, they are easily mistaken for killers. A 2020 study found that, while farmers in Argentina believed Black Vultures and other scavengers regularly killed their animals, such occurrences were in fact very rare. “The question is whether vultures were responsible or just at the scene of the crime,” says Marian Wahl, a graduate student in wildlife biology at Purdue. “They do a good job of making themselves look guilty.”
Wahl coordinates a research program, launched in 2021, to gauge the scale of the problem. Her team examines freshly killed livestock to try to identify telltale signs of Black Vulture predation. But it appears to happen so rarely—and vultures can reduce a body to hide and bones so quickly—that farmers have contributed few carcasses to the project, only one of which a pathologist could confirm the birds had indeed attacked.
However, predation certainly occurs. “It’s easy for you or me to say it’s an uncommon event. But we have a lot of small producers in the area,” Wahl says. “When you only raise maybe 20 animals a year, losing one of them has a big impact.”
To protect their herds, more farmers, including Hardin, are resorting to deadly force. Those who have lost animals, or who have a strong case that it’s likely to happen soon, can ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit to kill the birds. In 2021, to cut wait times, the Indiana Farm Bureau, like its counterparts in other states, obtained a blanket permit authorizing its members to shoot up to 500 vultures per year. They’ve shot 59 since August 2021.
Selectively killing individual birds can make other forms of harassment more threatening and effective, according to the USDA’s Wildlife Services department. Wahl’s experiments suggest that tools like pyrotechnics and lasers can disperse a vulture roost. But the birds rarely scatter far enough to ease farmers’ concerns and they become desensitized to these methods over time.
Currently there’s no obvious way to alleviate the conflict. But that’s because scientists are still in the early stages of understanding it, says Lee Humberg, Indiana state director at Wildlife Services and a partner on Wahl’s project: “This is a species that hasn’t been widely studied.” Research could lead to new tools to relieve tensions.
For now, Hardin plans to keep killing Black Vultures, but only when necessary. “I don’t want to do anything that’s not right,” he says. He’s used permits to shoot six birds in three years. Following guidance from Wildlife Services, he hung them in effigy to scare off others. It didn’t work. “I’ve not had any good luck controlling them,” he says. “They seem to get worse every year.”
This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue as “Vulture Clash.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.