Number One Reason to Love Turkey Vultures? They Aren't Black Vultures!

Our annual Soil and Water Meeting at the end of February was full of informative workshops and breakout sessions, but the most fascinating to me didn’t have much to do with soil or water…Representatives from Fish and Wildlife were on hand to talk about wildlife issues across Ohio, and we were introduced to a dark, new(ish) threat facing livestock producers: The Black Vulture.

The name alone should indicate that these birds are not a cheerful addition to the landscape. While turkey vultures were never close to the top of my “favorite bird” list, after learning about the black vulture, they have moved up in my estimation. There are some important and interesting distinctions between the two species, the first being that though they look and behave so similarly, the two are not technically in the same family. What really sets them apart though, and makes the black vulture a bird to be reckoned with, is that while they both enjoy fresh carrion, the Black Vulture is just as happy to create its own: Their preferred targets are the eyes, tongue and anus areas of newborn or helpless animals.

Developmental adaptations such as a more delicate beak, an aggressive nature, and lack of the keen sense of smell found in turkey vultures make it understandable why these birds attack the way they do. They rely on their eyesight to find food, either by harassing livestock to separate mothers from their young, or by following turkey vultures to a fresh feast. If the turkey vultures are there first, the black vultures aren’t shy, and help themselves to the carrion, first chasing the turkey vultures (a naturally timid bird) away. This behavior can be magnified to the extent that if a roost of black vultures is trying to establish in an area, it will scare away resident turkey vultures. Eliminating those carrion eaters means that more dead animals will be left on the landscape, since the black vultures won’t work on old kills.

The black vulture has been present in southern Ohio for many years, and they are most concentrated further south, including throughout South and Central America. In more recent years, there have been sightings further north, and unfortunately, more resulting damage to herds of livestock.

Unlucky for us, Holmes County represents some of their preferred habitat, with lots of forest edge to roost in. To give you an idea of how common these guys are becoming in our area, here is a very brief list of where they have been spotted locally, within the last few months (These were identified on the website, where you can track specific species of birds to view their ranges.

Most recent sightings:

  • 3-29-17 3 at Funk Bottoms
  • Up to 34 in February around Lake Buckhorn
  • 2-3 at the end of February and beginning of March, near Winesburg
  • 1 in Killbuck, end of February
  • 2 at the end of March just east of Loudonville
  • 16 at the end of January in Charm
  • 27 at the end of March, outside of Ragersville

It is important to know that the black vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Act, and actions taken without proper documentation can result in fines and other penalties. However, there are specific legal measures that can be used to help control black vulture predation issues on your farm. Whether or not you have experienced property loss, you can apply for a permit that will allow you to “take” up to 5 birds. The following links and resources may be helpful:

There are two types of control methods to practice while dealing with black vultures: Cultural management, and direct action. Management strategies are more proactive, aimed at making the birds leave before they cause an issue, by creating an inhospitable environment. This can include use of pyrotechnics, sound cannons, or lasers, or letting dogs chase (NOT kill!) the birds. Keep an eye out for the trees they prefer, and in some cases, it may be prudent to just cut it down (it is likely they will just find another nearby tree, but it could be an option). Also, if you can work it into your management or farming system, have your ewes and cows give birth close to the headquarters, where you’ll be able to keep an eye on them. Remove afterbirth or any mortalities as soon as you can, and make sure they are well buried.

If you still have a threat, a permit will allow lethal measures on five birds. One effective strategy is to use the first bird you kill to create an effigy to scare off the others. Both turkey vultures and black vultures are fairly intelligent, and a well-done effigy has been known to make the birds abandon an area. However, they are not easily fooled by replicas. If shooting becomes part of your deterring technique, remember that you need to use non-toxic (i.e. lead-free) ammunition when targeting migratory birds.

One last note: There used to be money available to farmers who lost livestock (by means other than natural causes) through the Livestock Indemnity Program with the Farm Service Agency. Currently there is no funding available through that program.

Karen is the most recent addition to the Holmes SWCD staff.  Since joining the staff in January 2016, she has delved into the cover crop program, soil testing, nutrient recommendations, nutrient trading programs, and water sampling.  A 2009 graduate of Miami University’s Western College program with a Bachelor of Philosophy in environmental studies, she has worked in a variety of fields in southern Ohio, California, and Colorado.  She was most recently employed with the Farm Service Agency in Hamilton, Ohio, but is happy to return home and assist the Holmes community in agricultural and conservation pursuits.  Karen can be reached at 330-674-2811 or