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It’s an (Air) War Out Here
When a Vulture is not a Vulture. And definitely NOT endangered.
Around lambing and calving time in farm country, you may not need an alarm clock to wake up early. Many mornings on our farm, gunfire woke me up. No one was hunting. Nor were the Russians invading. My brother was firing a shotgun into the air to try to scare Black Vultures away from the sheep and cattle. Black Vultures are Vultures-in-Name-Only. (Hmmm…. VINO? Maybe I need to cook up a meme.)
Near the barn, radios blared AM talk radio, the only radio station in range. Same reason: trying to scare away predators. I joked to friends that it’s a good thing our sheep couldn’t vote, given their steady diet of AM shock-jocks. Some friends responded, “Are you sure they aren’t voting?” I often wished we had more variety on the local airwaves, because using “noise and lights” to scare protected species away from the flock or herd are a farmer’s only legal defense against protected predators like Black Vultures and I quickly tire of talk-radio rage entrepreneurs. Country peace and quiet? Ha! You may want to check on farmers’ non-lethal predator defenses before booking an Air BnB in farm country, especially if your plans include sleeping late.
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Most people think of the Bald Eagle when they hear of protected bird species. Most also assume a protected species must be endangered to be protected. The comeback of the Bald Eagle is definitely a success story for protection laws. Bald, Golden, and White-Tailed Eagles and California Condors — all endangered during much of the past century — are among the 1,093 bird species protected under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The MBTA codified a treaty originally between the US and Canada into federal law. The MBTA is one of the earliest US environmental laws. The demand for feathers for hats in the 19th century and early 20th century drove hunting of some bird species to extinction or close to it, prompting this 1918 law and its related predecessors (the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Weeks-McLean Act of 1913). The 1918 Migratory Birds Treaty Act (the law, not the treaty) started out as very controversial. Missouri took a case (Missouri v. Holland) all the way to the Supreme Court in 1920, arguing that the US Constitution did not assign regulation of game to the federal government, so the federal government could not enter into an international treaty that overrode state game laws. Missouri lost the case 7-2. The underlying treaty signatories have been expanded to include Mexico, Japan, and Russia over the past 100-plus years of the its existence.
What we farmers affectionately refer to as THE LIST — currently those 1,093 species — has evolved over the past century. If you scroll down far enough on the latest MBTA list, you will find just about every bird you know. Both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures on THE LIST. I am having a hard time visualizing high-fashion hats made of vulture feathers, so I suspect those vultures were not on the original list either. If you search the internet for “endangered vultures,” you will not find these species on any endangered list, past or present. Their distant cousin the California Condor is endangered. You will find that almost all African vultures are endangered. The main reason? Some Africans use vulture body parts for “medicinal purposes” as well as food. People use vulture brains and even their entire heads to enhance their own intelligence and eyesight. The foundation of this practice is “Doctrine of Signatures,” a belief that the capabilities of an animal or plant determine its effect on the human user. Believers think that the Old World Vultures’ extraordinary eyesight can be transmitted to the human via use of its eyes or head or brain as a medicine or perhaps an amulet, conveying not just improved vision, but enhanced foresight and luck. This makes me pause now when I hear the term “bird-brain” intended as an insult. Unfortunately, because African poachers serving the illegal vulture body parts trade kill the vultures by laying out poisoned animal carcasses, and that poison can kill a person also, I wonder how helpful or lucky those medicines or charms are.
Vultures are a critical part of their native ecosystem. They are Nature’s flying recyclers. Farmers don’t have a problem with all vultures, only with vultures that don’t act like vultures. To help you appreciate the complexity of this issue, I want to lead you deeper into vulture-dom. The family tree of New World Vultures includes seven distinct species, including the California Condors. Incredible as it may seem, the New World Vultures are no relation to Old World Vultures. Evolution sometimes follows convergent paths that defy probability, so the similarities between the two families (like naked heads) are selected for their utility in the, er, um, field. Feathered heads are a bit of a liability when your dinner is complicated with a lot of microbes.
One major and fascinating difference between vulture families is how they home in on dinner. The New World Turkey Vultures (Cathartes Aura) have an amazing sense of smell while Old World Vultures depend on keen eyesight. This difference may be driven by the prevalence of forests in the New World concealing dinner on the ground, while the Old World Vultures are looking for dinner mostly in open grasslands. The Vultures aren’t talking about it. In fact, New World Vultures can’t make any sound beyond a hiss. It’s probably a good thing that the discovery of the Turkey Vultures’ keen sense of smell is recent, and popular literature still abounds with the idea that they hunt by sight. Otherwise, there might be a black market in Turkey Vultures here to treat a certain COVID-19 symptom per the Doctrine of Signatures, which more people believe than realize or admit they do.
The New World Turkey Vulture has been a common resident in our neck of the woods (mid-Atlantic states) from pre-Colombian times. It eats carrion — already dead things — and only carrion. Turkey Vultures can eat stuff that would make a human or even a coyote sick because it has the most acidic stomach of any Earth creature. I’m not trying to ruin your lunch here, but I do want to give you some perspective. You probably recall from high-school chemistry that “pH” (potential Hydrogen) is a scale of 0 to 14, where neutral is 7 and numbers below that are more acidic as they approach zero. Human stomachs have a pH around 2. That’s enough to kill about 99% of the bacteria that hitchhikes into us on our food. Vultures’ tummies run at almost pH=0, so that gives you an idea of what the bacteria load on their typical dinner might be. Their gastric system has to kill whatever bacteria killed their dinner plus the bacteria that has since begun to return that carcass to earth. Thus vultures reduce the spread of disease by killing the bugs in their stomachs. Battery acid has a pH around 0.8. Think about that next time you spill battery acid and watch it eat through metal. Vultures can actually digest metal, although they usually don’t volunteer to do that. I suspect that the reason Turkey Vultures usually roost in dead tree skeletons is they know their poop can kill trees as well as bacteria, not just for the vantage point. In fact, they use their poop to kill any bacteria that may have hitch-hiked on their legs at the site of their last meal. Icky but ingenious.
Curiously, a flock of vultures is called a “kettle” while in flight but called a “committee” on the ground unless they are feeding, whereupon the correct term is a “wake” of vultures. Except this wake is not paying respects to the deceased. Most people might say they are desecrating the deceased, but Nature doesn’t share our definition of the sacred. “All waste is food for something,” Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, theologian and farmer (former director of the Leopold Center at Iowa State University) likes to say. Farming is not an ideal profession for the squeamish. Or those who are too well toilet-trained. And this may be a lot more about vultures than you thought you wanted to know – but please stick with me here – the vulture thread is a great example of how complex and amazing our ecosystem is, and how complicated it can be to find the right balance between preserving the natural and producing food for eight billion people.
New World Turkey Vulture. The common name comes from the bird’s resemblance in color (dark brown and red) to our wild turkeys. (Photo Courtesy of www.tn.gov)
Turkey Vultures are welcome on a farm. Well, I guess I should say they are welcome after you have reconciled yourself to the loss of the animal the vultures are recycling. It’s usually NOT good news to see them circling over your farm somewhere, watching some creature giving up its ghost. If a gas pipeline crosses your farm, circling vultures might signal a gas leak. Turns out that the stinky stuff the gas company puts into otherwise odorless natural gas to alert people of a leak — ethyl mercaptan — smells a lot like a dead animal to a Turkey Vulture. So the gas company can follow the circling vultures to gas leaks. Disappointed vultures, happy gas workers. We didn’t have a gas pipeline across our farm so the circling vultures usually signaled disaster for some critter. Come to think, a gas pipeline across the farm would have saved us from struggling to pay the mortgage with lambchops and wool.
Until we had to differentiate between members of the vulture family, we called the Turkey Vultures “buzzards.” Turns out that none of the New World Vulture families are Buzzards. That mis-naming began with early English immigrants to the New World, due to some superficial similarities with English Buzzards. Also, some Spanish colonizers were confused: one Mexican name for Black Vulture is zopilote, or Buzzard.
Then the less-specialized cousin of our Turkey Vultures — Corgyps atratus, commonly called Black Vultures — started making our area a migration destination in the late 1990s. I’ve heard some people call this black-headed Vulture the “Mexican Vulture” but my bird-smart friends tell me that must be a regional nickname. Whatever the moniker, this black-headed vulture was more of an equatorial species, originally migrating from northern South America to southeastern North America. It has been expanding its range up the eastern US seaboard in recent decades with climate warming trends.
Black Vulture: Photo From The Seven Species Of New World Vultures - WorldAtlas
The Black Vulture is the product of a very early branch in the New World Vulture family while the Turkey Vulture evolved into a distinct species much later. The main difference between a Black Vulture and a Turkey Vulture that a casual observer will see is the color of its naked head. Both birds have dark brown-black or nearly black feathers, but the Turkey Vulture has a naked red head while the Black Vulture has a naked grey-almost-black head. There are other differences, mostly noticeable in flight or when they spread their wings while perched. If you happen to see the two vultures close to each other, you will notice that the Turkey Vulture has a larger wingspan. Our Turkey Vultures may have wingspans nearly 6 feet versus only at most 5 feet for the Black Vulture interlopers and are more graceful flyers. You often see Black Vultures following Turkey Vultures around. The Turkey Vulture is better at finding carrion, given its much keener sense of smell. The Black Vulture can see better. And it is more aggressive: After they let the Turkey Vulture sniff out dinner, a “wake” of Black Vultures will beat the (usually lone) Turkey Vulture off so they can have the carcass for themselves.
If the Black Vultures’ worst crime was harassing and exploiting their distant cousins, farmers would probably just shrug and go back to trying to find some black ink on their balance sheets. Unfortunately, the Black Vulture eats carrion only when it can’t kill live prey. Black Vultures collaborate to kill live prey as well as to steal carrion from their solitary Turkey Vulture cousins. Two or three Black Vultures can rip a newborn lamb apart. Usually, they kill the first lamb born while the ewe is down having its twin. Until the ewe is incapacitated by giving birth to the twin, she usually manages to protect the first lamb, getting it up and eating. When she goes down into labor for the second lamb, she’s helpless and the first lamb is vulnerable to a coordinated attack by these not-vultures. The ewe is handicapped in this battle by instincts that keep her focused on the ground around her for mortal threats, rather than scanning the sky. The ewe usually manages to save only one of her two lambs. That’s just the cost of business, some people say. Well, the difference between your ewes weaning one lamb and two is the difference between a farm surviving and not. And no, contrary to popular belief, the government does NOT reimburse us for all livestock lost to all predators, only for some special losses to canine predators. Not Black Vultures. The cost of these predators for our farm included bringing all our lambing ewes inside the barn for the blessed event. A big increase labor and feed, but at least we had more lambs to wean. (See December 2022 newsletter, “A Shepherd’s Christmas.”)
Ripping a calf apart is beyond the capability of even a “committee” of Black Vultures, but they can still make a calf’s and a cattleman’s life miserable. Black Vultures blind calves. Eyes, it turns out, are quite tasty, be you a bird or something else. I recall my military wilderness survival instructor training telling us when we complained of the lack of salt or seasoning for our hard-won jack-rabbit dinner: “That’s what the eyes are for…. You didn’t throw them away, did you?” For the record, I did not eat them. But the Black Vultures, possibly looking for some seasoning to chase the lamb dinner, perch on the cow’s tail head (that ridge on her rump where her tail attaches) while she’s helpless in labor on the ground. When the calf’s head emerges from her birth canal, the vultures strip away the birth sac and peck the calf’s eyes out before its shoulders emerge. The result is a blind calf. Sometimes they damage the calf’s nose and tongue, too. Not just calves: we once lost a newborn foal this way. A calf or foal without a tongue soon dies of starvation and shock, giving the vultures a fresh meal without the trouble of killing it directly or fighting off the angry Momma. A blind calf is easy pickings for a coyote, too.
Our cows were a tight-knit group that ganged up on predators, so we had less trouble with these vultures attacking calves than our neighbors have. Or perhaps the Black Vultures translocated to our farm were all too busy stalking the ewes and killing lambs to mess with the more imposing cows and calves. Mostly. My first experience with an attack on a calf occurred just after I returned to the farm in 2004. Our cows were running wild all over the place, as the fences washed out in the 1995 flood had not been rebuilt due to lack of funds. By then, our cows were all big, rangy half-breeds – mostly what we call “bald angus” – Hereford and Angus crosses. While the sheep were easily confined with electric fence, these cows had no respect at all for any wire, having spent years pushing through the remnants of the flood-damaged fences. I was making friends with the cows because pinkeye was raging and I needed to get some medicine in them to save their eyesight from that scourge. We also needed to start rotating pasture for a nutrient management program. Bioterrorism and disease concerns were pushing us all toward universal livestock identification that was going to require tagging and tracing cattle to the farm of origin, a practice already in place for sheep for years. Since the devastation of the flood, no one was even sure how many cows we had, to be honest. A couple of times a year, my brothers would do a roundup and snag every calf above weaning weight and haul them to the livestock auction, untagged, dams unidentified. But the regulatory handwriting was on the barn wall — the livestock auction bulletin board, anyway — and we had to tame the cows and start tagging calves.
I noticed that Mom’s ancient horse Merlin — in his fourth decade and so old you could see his cataracts halfway across the barn — was keeping close company with a lone young calf not too far from the barn, a calf much too young to be weaned. Momma Cow showed up every few hours to feed the calf, then disappeared back over the hill to the herd, leaving the calf with Merlin. Momma Cow was mostly black, but she had a small white patch on her udder and blaze on her chest. Her distinguishing markings could only be seen from a distance with binoculars. At a distance she stayed because she did not trust me. But the old horse was happy to see me and the nice mash that I brought every morning for his nearly-toothless enjoyment. With Merlin’s help, I was able to get close to the calf when his Momma was gone. That’s when I noticed that the calf’s eyes were severely damaged. He was blind as a stone. The odd behavior of Momma Cow continued. Moving the minerals closer and closer to the barnyard, forcing the cattle herd to leave their favorite haunts occasionally for that essential, finally solved the mystery. That cow had twins! Common in dairy cows, twinning is rare in beef cows. Momma Cow was solving the problem of the blind calf not being able to keep up with the herd by recruiting the lonely old horse as baby-sitter and protector for the blind calf. Horses can kill canine predators, the main risk to a blind calf. Coyotes and foxes and dogs give horses a lot of extra room. Even an ancient half-blind horse. They also don’t mess with a whole herd of cows. So this clever Momma Cow would leave the sighted twin in the care of a herd-sister while she went to feed the blind calf protected by Merlin, then go back to her herd and the other calf for grazing and general herd duties. That cow had several more sets of twins before age caught up with her. Fortunately, no more were blinded by the vultures. For all I know she’d been having twins for years before I returned to the farm. If anyone had been counting noses, well, some other cow was probably free-loading and got credit for her bonus calf. Wish I could have cloned that gal. Not just for the twins – she was a great mother who came up with a solution that kept even a blind calf alive.
But what is the solution for protecting livestock from these VINO Black Vultures? The Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act of 2004 amended the 1918 law to clarify that the MBTA’s prohibition on taking, killing, or possessing migratory birds applies only to “native migratory bird species whose occurrence in the US results from natural biological or ecological conditions.” This reform enabled the exclusion of invasive bird species introduced to the US, such as some European swans. Unfortunately, the Black Vulture falls into a gray area. Its pre-Columbian range included some of what is now the US (the southeast), just not as much as it does now. They fit the definition of an invasive in our area, under what the USDA calls a “translocation” of species. But THE LIST is maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, not the USDA, and they aren’t returning farmers’ calls. So you get to set a place at the dinner table for those Black Vultures. You are allowed to “scare them” away with noise: that’s my brother firing a shotgun into the air, not aimed directly at the offending birds. I have to commend his restraint, especially having heard his curses of government bureaucrats as well as those blank-blank birds between shots. Triple-S (“Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up”) is pretty tempting when a predator is tearing a lamb apart in front of your eyes.
In theory, you can get a hunting permit for these birds if you can prove that noise and lights and strategic location of carrion have not been enough to protect your livestock. The permit has been an option only if you have a huge amount of time left over from NOT succeeding in protecting your lambs or calves. The US Fish and Wildlife Service provides a nine-page application form (WS Form 37, recently updated to FWS Form 3-200-13) which requires that you append documentation of your losses and your investment in non-lethal attempts to discourage the predator. This includes receipts for your costs and losses. Like there’s a receipt for a dead newborn lamb. Videos of Black Vultures dismembering a newborn lamb are not on the proposed documentation list. Nor is a clear way to communicate general statistics in how many lambs survive in the barn versus in the field. Or the difference in weight between a blind weanling calf and a sighted one. Or the sale of a blind heifer for beef that was destined to be your future bloodstock. You must also certify that you have already obtained all the state-level permits required for the proposed depredation activity. And that’s just one page of this nine-page form. You send this pile of paperwork plus a $100 non-refundable processing fee to the US Department of the Interior’s US Fish and Wildlife Service for a “depredation permit.” That agency will get back to you in about a year with questions about your application and a request for another $50 for the “amendment” -- and then think about it. The “paperwork burden disclosure” on the form says that the entire process including amendments is only about 2-1/2 hours for individuals. If you are lucky enough to have a farm where broadband is available, you can theoretically save time (according to the government) by applying on-line. I gave up after the 2-1/2 hours I needed to just understand a portion of what the application required.
I am not advocating for repeal of the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, just suggesting that we reconsider particular listing decisions. The MBTA and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act modeled on it is the reason I can soar with these magnificent birds in my glider. Or enjoy watching an eagle hunt field mice. The MBTA has saved important species from extinction from over-hunting. Some say that eagles are livestock predators, but I know of only one close call. A sheep farmer in our region witnessed a Bald Eagle attempting to carry off a young lamb. The bird labored to an altitude of about 30 feet with the squirming, crying lamb in its talons before realizing this was not an easy dinner. The eagle dropped the lamb, which fell to the ground -- and bounced. Our friend was rushing to pick up what he thought would be a dying bundle of shattered bones, only to see the lamb scramble to its feet and run crying to its momma for a snack. The eagles don’t collaborate like those Black Vultures do, which limits the size of their prey.
Putting these prolific and collaborative invasive Black Vultures on the same list as endangered species in their original habitat can give that entire list a bad name. It can reduce enthusiasm for protecting the truly endangered species. To make matters worse, a landowner can be prosecuted for accidental or “incidental” harm to any bird on this list. We got some relief from the threat of prosecution for accidental harm in January of 2021, but that exception was rescinded only months later amid a flurry of lawsuits from bird conservation groups, and some concerns about the intention of underlying treaties. The wind-turbine energy industry supported this exception along with farmers and ranchers, as those power companies can be prosecuted for birds killed by a windmill even if they have deployed mitigation systems. The MBTA’s huge list didn’t start the fire of anti-government sentiment sweeping through rural America, but it sure does throw another log on the flames.
This winter, Virginia farmers finally got a bureaucratic break-though, courtesy of a hard-working, hustling team at the USDA in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). The USDA is going state-by-state to find ways to help farmers protect their livestock from these Black Vultures. They are bridging the bureaucratic chasm by getting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to issue permits to whatever state agency that will cooperate. In Virginia, the USDA got a large “depredation” permit granted to VDACS. VDACS will issue a sub-permit to individual farmers who have been unable to “scare” problem Black Vultures away. With a sub-permit, a farmer can eliminate up to five problem birds. The idea is to eliminate the vulture committee-leaders so their followers will decide to find dinner elsewhere. I emailed the USDA contact, pessimistically bracing for a pile of paperwork. I was pleasantly surprised with a call within the hour from the USDA lead. He can assess a farmer’s situation based on an interview and direct VDACS to issue a sub-permit within hours. More than five birds killing lambs or blinding calves? You have to get your very own permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
All this is just one example of the challenges and ever-increasing costs to keep livestock alive long enough to get to your dinnerplate in a changing world.
What can a consumer-voter do to help? Encourage more nuanced wildlife protection laws that enable the farmer to survive alongside the wildlife and partner with conservationists. If you belong to a conservation advocacy organization, encourage your organization to partner with farmers to advocate for tailored solutions. There is no Easy Button. One size does not fit all. US history suggests that farmers are not going to become wildlife extinction machines just to protect livestock and livelihood. After all, we have to live out here with the consequences of our actions. Our history suggests that species become endangered when a direct profit for their killing is created, and not only a demand for feathers for hats. I’ll get into that with a future newsletter (wolves).
And now, if I’ve stimulated your curiosity rather than bored you stiff, here are some references:
eCFR :: 50 CFR 10.13 -- List of Migratory Birds. (associated with the MBTA of 1918)
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