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Black vultures are getting closer

February 18, 2019
In this April 2009 photo, a black vulture perches on a fence post at Shepherd of the Hill Fish Hatchery in Branson, Mo. Black vultures have extended their range from South America and the southeastern U.S. into Midwestern states.

On a cool morning in June 2016, after a night of rain here in the Ohio Valley, I drove down U.S. 52 from Huntington to Maysville, Kentucky. I crossed the river and headed down Kentucky 8 toward the Meldahl Locks and Dam, where the dedication ceremony for the new hydroelectric plant was to occur.

On the Kentucky side, I passed the H.L. Spurlock power plant, a large coal-fired facility. Along the road near the plant was the largest collection of black vultures I had ever seen. Not turkey vultures — the red-headed variety common to this area — but black vultures. A dozen or more were just standing around, almost oblivious to passing traffic. My assumption was that they were waiting for the air to warm up a bit more, then they would take flight and catch the thermals from the power plant or its cooling towers.

There had been word the black vulture was extending its range toward our area. Here in Cabell County, I had seen one black vulture that hung around with a flock of turkey vultures. But this was the first time I had seen a large group of them.

Turkey vultures are shy. You can’t get close to them, and they eat only dead animals. Black vultures are smaller than turkey vultures. They have black heads, and their beaks are shorter. They’re also nasty, and if they are indeed heading this way, people with livestock or outdoor animals may want to keep their eyes out for them.

A recent article in the farm publication Drovers says black vultures have been extending their range from the Southeast into Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.

Black vultures will attack newborn calves. The vultures concentrate on the eyes and the anus. The blind, frightened calf runs itself to exhaustion, and the vultures will begin eating before the calf dies. Black vultures will also attack weak full-grown livestock.

Farmers who want to protect their livestock usually find that despite their growing range and numbers, black vultures are a federally protected species and permits are needed to kill them. But as one of my longtime acquaintances said, “If it were my live animals they were killing, I would shoot first and figure out what they were later, and to HECK with the fin and feathers people.”

Farmers aren’t the only people who need to watch out for black vultures should their range encroach more on this area. For some reason, those birds like to peck away at rubber. It can be on a boat or a building or a vehicle. Black vultures will tear at rubber for no good reason.

They got so bad at locks and dams on the lower Ohio River that the Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now has a dog tasked with chasing them away from the locks. Vultures gather at a dam and attack expansion joints. Other birds, such as pigeons, cause trouble, too, with their droppings. Baiting and trapping nuisance birds didn’t work so well, so now the Corps has a border collie who moves from dam to dam so she can chase the vultures away.

Only time will tell whether black vultures will move in large numbers into this area. Invasive species often are problems until a predator or other limit acts to control their numbers.

If black vultures do take up residence here in large numbers, they could be a menace, a nuisance or a nonfactor in personal and recreational life. As one author put it, vultures are nature’s ghastly gourmet. We need them. In our case, though, that means we need turkey vultures, not black vultures.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email in jross@heralddispatch.com.