Black vultures killed nine calves on Tretter’s Illinois farm in 2018. Eyes pecked out and backsides torn to a bloody pulp, the calves were devoured alive—a far cry from carrion or roadkill. “I can’t imagine what the calves go through,” he says. “A coyote or a big cat would be a much better way to go than the damn black vultures. People need to know: They come for the living, not just the dead.”
The Living and the Dead: Black Vultures Expand, Farmers Pay Cost
Another dead calf. Gary Tretter’s stomach turned as he kneeled over the bloodied remains and noted the telltale loss of both eyes. Once again, predators from above. Black vultures killed nine calves on Tretter’s Illinois farm in 2018. Eyes pecked out and backsides torn to a bloody pulp, the calves were devoured alive—a far cry from carrion or roadkill. “I can’t imagine what the calves go through,” he says. “A coyote or a big cat would be a much better way to go than the damn black vultures. People need to know: They come for the living, not just the dead.”
Tretter’s loss is not in isolation. Livestock producers in the Midwest report expanding black vulture presence. Traditionally ranging in the Southeast, black vulture populations have moved north over the past 40 years, and incidents in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and additional states note increased depredation. Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there is no turnkey solution to the raptor’s expansion as producer concerns mount.
Brent White, 46, maintains a 40-cow herd and backgrounds roughly 50 calves each year atop 460 acres of gentle hills in western Kentucky’s Lyon County on the southern edge of the Fredonia Valley. In 2007, after synchronizing cows on an early May morning, White climbed in his truck just after 5 a.m. to buy breakfast in town for his crew, and passed a rolling field dotted with cows due to calve late. “I could hardly see, but I looked over at what I thought was a lot of turkeys in the pasture.”
In the lifting darkness, White didn’t realize two of the cows had just given birth to a single calf and a pair of twins. Thirty minutes later, with breakfast in hand, he drove back by the same field, now bathed in daylight, and spotted several cows under attack. “I could see one cow charging at something and another running in circles. I got closer and realized my cows were fighting vultures, not turkeys, for the lives of the calves.”
Slamming the truck into park, White ran into the field, but was too late. “They’d already pecked out the eyes of one calf, and started on the hind end of another. That’s where my black vulture education began and I learned the hard way.”
From 2008 to 2011, White lost six additional calves to black vultures. He shared the accounts with area farmers, and says he was met by significant skepticism. “Guys would laugh and tell me, ‘Buzzards eat dead animals.’ Today, they don’t laugh anymore. Go ask those same farmers and they’ll tell you what I said was true. We’ve got a lot of people dealing with this.”
From 2012 to 2018, White lost six more calves, including a corralled, full-grown cow hampered by a hip problem. The calves averaged 90 days or younger, but several were approximately six months old. “It’s heartbreaking to find them. Many times they’re still alive with eyes gone and the back of the neck split open. Emotionally it’ll tear you up.”
Describing vultures as “sharp and opportunistic,” White says the birds utilize chokepoints across his operation. “They work together and take advantage of narrow spots to trap calves. They hang around, watching and learning.”
As a control method, White advocates a concentrated focus on roosts: “I know USDA wants to help producers with our black vulture problem. Wildlife Services needs funding so they can send out teams to target the vulture roosts with night vision goggles and suppressed low-caliber firearms. If they attacked the roosts it would stop the flow.”
Gary Tretter, 39, runs a cow-calf through finish operation, in addition to growing corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat in southern Illinois’ Jackson County. “I’d lost healthy calves before and couldn’t figure out what was killing them, but last year was brutal and I lost nine confirmed calves to black vultures.”
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