MURPHYSBORO — Cattle producers in Southern Illinois are facing a threat from the skies. Vultures that swoop down and prey on young calves are raiding a growing number of farms.
Gary Tretter II, who has a 60-cow herd near Murphysboro, said he has lost four calves this year to vulture attacks. Several of his neighbors in Jackson County have also experienced calf kills in which vultures are suspected.
The culprits are not turkey vultures, which feed solely on carrion. They are black vultures. While primarily scavengers, black vultures are part-time predators, known to gang up on young animals.
The attacks concern Tretter not only from the standpoint of economic loss, but because of the suffering the predators inflict.
“It appears that they get the eyes, and after they get the calf disoriented, a couple of them will go around to its rear end, and then the calf will bleed out,” Tretter said. “I feel so bad for the calves.”
Newborn calves are at the most risk, but Tretter said vultures have attacked and killed calves in his herd as old as two weeks.
University of Illinois Extension beef educator Teresa Steckler has heard from several cattlemen who have been battling the predators. It is difficult to obtain specific information on numbers of the birds, but anecdotal evidence suggest there are more in the region recently.
“I don’t remember black vultures being here during calving season before,” Steckler said. “I don’t know if they’ve extended their range, but it does seem like numbers have increased somewhat.”
Jeff Beasley, who farms near Carrier Mills, has so far avoided fatalities in his herd from vultures. But he is well aware of the problem.
“It is an issue. I can’t say we’ve ever lost any, but that’s because we watch them real close,” said Beasley, whose farm is near the border of Williamson and Saline counties. “They’re (vultures) around all the time. They can present a problem during calving season. They are really smart.”
The environment of Southern Illinois is a natural habitat for the birds. It is at the northern point of the black vulture’s range in North America.
It’s uncertain why calves are vulnerable to the attacks. Tretter wonders if the birds are intimidating the cows in the herd.
“I don’t really understand why they haven’t been doing a better job of protecting their calves, unless (the vultures) are coming in and pecking at the heads of the mama cows,” Tretter said. “I have not seen that, but I’ve watched the cows chase off vultures in the past. But these operate differently than the turkey vultures.”
Beasley has seen the birds pester cows in his herd. They gather in large flocks, unlike the more common turkey vultures. During calving season, he keeps his animals close to the barn and cranks up his vigilance.
“When a cow passes her afterbirth, we try to pick it up and remove it from the field,” he said. “I would say if we didn’t watch it closely, we would have lost a few calves over the years.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cooperates with state and federal wildlife agencies, along with cattle producers, to address such problems. According to the agency’s website, help is available — even financial reimbursement — in certain cases.
In Illinois, European starlings, house sparrows and pigeons are the only bird species not protected by state and federal law. Permits are required for elimination of nuisance birds, but wildlife agencies recommend nonlethal methods of driving away pests.
For vultures, that can include hanging effigies of the birds upside-down from a tree or other high places. Tretter has heard that can be successful.
“They say that nothing seems to scare a vulture more than a dead vulture,” he said.