What is it that has a fondness for eating windshield wiper blades, rubber seals/gaskets on vehicles, rubberized coatings on building roofs, pool liners, is becoming the bane of southern cattlemen because, in numbers, it can rip newborn calves to shreds and even eat out the rear of the birth-weakened mamma cow (geez, this is so gross!!), has puke so foul and acidic it will corrode through metal roofs, enjoys a long life span because it has no predators (except occasionally being splattered by a vehicle on the highways or in collision with an aircraft), and once it takes a liking to your property can become your bff?
Oh yeah, and it’s protected by federal law and you aren’t allowed to kill it unless you get a $100 permit and justify your need to do so.
If you know the answer to the question, you’ve likely had the misfortune to have dealt with black vultures, more commonly known as buzzards — the long wing-spanned birds that can gracefully soar on thermals for hours, a thousand feet or more above ground, while with their amazing vision they’re scoping the landscape below for roadkill or other yummy carrion on which to feast.
“It is a unique bird,” says Kris Godwin, adjunct assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management, and Mississippi director of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services at Mississippi State University, who has a lot of experience with the critters, but notes there “still is so much that’s not known about them; there’s not a lot of research.”
In Mississippi, there are two types, the less common red-headed turkey vulture, and the predominant black vulture, which is the more aggressive. A survey has shown almost 400,000 black vultures in the state, but numbers can be much higher in some years. They have “an acute, highly developed sense of smell — one of a few birds with that ability — and incredible eyesight.” They can live as long as 20-25 years and once they take a liking to a place, it’s extremely difficult to evict them.
SCARING AWAY GAMBLERS
A couple of examples Godwin cited were the Jackson, Miss.-area office building complex where the birds destroyed rubberized roofing to the tune of $250,000, not to mention helping themselves to windshield wipers, rubber sealants, etc., from vehicles in the parking lot, and a central Mississippi casino, where they perched atop a huge glass dome, causing damage and a major mess from their droppings. “But the worst part,” she says, “is that casino management said the birds were keeping gamblers away because they thought the birds were a bad omen.” They also are a problem for cell phone towers and electric transmission line towers.
"They have a ridiculously acidic stomach — a pH of 1 or so — and a nasty digestive system. Their defense mechanism is projectile vomiting, and believe me, you don’t want to be the target of that.”
“Their range is expanding, and we’re seeing increasing problems with them, particularly for livestock farmers,” Godwin said in a recent presentation at the Starkville-Mississippi State University Ag Club meeting.”
Because they’re particularly a problem during calving season, and can kill a newborn calf and sometimes the mother, she advises “know when your cows are going to be dropping calves. Be watchful, have a dog around, and be aware that these birds can be quite aggressive when food is involved.” And promptly clean up any dead animals.
Describing black vultures as “a biological cleanup machine,” she says “they will eat almost anything. They have a ridiculously acidic stomach — a pH of 1 or so — and a nasty digestive system. Their defense mechanism is projectile vomiting, and believe me, you don’t want to be the target of that.” They also have “very strong beaks and could crack a finger.” The acidity of their vomit and poop can be very corrosive to metal roof buildings.
As if all that weren’t enough, the birds represent “an extreme danger” to aircraft, and a collision with one can do considerable damage to wing surfaces, cockpit windshields, etc. If one should be sucked into a jet engine, “the engine is toast,” Godwin says.
If they take a fancy to your house or barn, or start roosting near cattle pastures, Godwin says do everything legal to scare them away. “Once established, they’re extremely difficult to get rid of.” Firing bottle rockets or other noisemakers and installing perch-discouraging methods are among the suggested practices — but it can still be a tough go.
Some folks are using drones in attempts to scare them away. An effigy made from the carcass of a dead vulture can be effective in scaring them away. If worse comes to worst, she says, apply for a depradation permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Permits are required because black vultures are migratory, and thus are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which means producers need a Migratory Bird Depredation Permit in order to take, capture, or kill the birds.
“There is quite a bit of pressure for loosening of regulations for controlling vultures,” Godwin says.
(Trivia items: A group of vultures is called a kettle, committee, or wake. The term kettle refers to vultures in flight, while committee refers to vultures resting on the ground or in trees. Wake is reserved for a group of vultures that are feeding.)
FERAL PIGS, COYOTES (AND VAMPIRE BATS?)
In addition to vulture problems for cattlemen and property owners, and cormorant problems for catfish producers, she says feral pigs are continuing to expand their range — and numbers — in Mississippi, causing extensive damage to crops in many areas, as well as to land itself.
Helicopter hunts have been conducted over the Delta region the past two years, Godwin says. In 2017, some 1,500 were eliminated and this year, 1,104. Despite the damage to crops and land, she says some land owners won’t give permission to hunt over their properties. “They either want the pigs on their land for hunting, or they just have objections to killing them.”
Coyote numbers have also been increasing in many areas of the state, she says. Unlike vultures, they aren’t protected and can be killed on one’s property any time of the year.
While not a problem in the South — yet — Godwin says it “probably is only a matter of time” until vampire bats arrive, either in Florida or south Texas. “They are a unique species; unlike other bats, they don’t bite, but instead lick the wounds of livestock and other animals. The big worry is rabies that the bats can carry. Licking a bleeding wound on a cow can infect it with rabies. If these bats get established here, it will require enhanced surveillance of cattle herds."