Sunday, October 5, 2003

Vultures' onslaught terrorizes livestock

Increase in flocks depletes Ohio farms

By John Seewer
The Associated Press

COSHOCTON, Ohio - Alan Brinker couldn't figure out why all of his newborn lambs were dying.

"We'd have 10 new babies, and the next day I'd go out and we had 10 dead ones," the central Ohio farmer said.

Suspecting that a flock of black vultures may be to blame, he drove out to a hillside where a lone ewe was on the ground ready to give birth. It was too late. Fifty vultures had surrounded her.

"They had pecked her eyes out, beat her down," he said. "They had sliced her belly open, and they were pulling the baby out."

While black vultures have been harassing livestock for decades in southern states, their range appears to have expanded north and east in recent years. Complaints about the birds slaughtering livestock and destroying property also have increased, according to wildlife researchers.

Unlike turkey vultures, which eat carcasses and rarely attack livestock, black vultures will go after piglets, sheep and cows as well as dead animals.

They roost in dead trees, cellular phone towers and power lines in large packs - sometimes in the hundreds. They are nature's garbage disposals.

But the loss of forests has fragmented the birds' habitat, and an increase in landfills has made it easier for vultures to find food and expand their range, said Martin Lowney, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's director of wildlife services in Virginia.

It's not just sheep and cattle being targeted.

The vultures tear away at roof shingles, lawn chairs, wiper blades on cars and even pink plastic flamingoes in lawns.

"They're just mean and ornery," said Andy Montoney, a biologist with the USDA in Columbus.

His agency this summer visited a farm in southern Ohio where about 200 vultures had taken up residence. "They just picked on these people," Montoney said.

It's not known how many black vultures populate the nation. But surveys by bird watchers and the U.S. Geological Survey indicate the numbers have been increasing since 1990.

Because black vultures - like all native birds - are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they can be killed only in small numbers by federal permit.

Most farmers are told to try to scare the birds away with noisemakers that sound like fireworks or gun blasts or by hanging an effigy that looks like a dead vulture near their roosts. Researchers have found those methods will work, but there's no guarantee.

Brinker didn't have much faith in such tactics. He got out of the sheep business soon after losing 90 newborns to vultures two years ago. He estimates he lost $6,700.

He still has beef cattle on his farm north of Zanesville, and lost a calf to vultures in the spring.

Brinker wants the birds taken off the protected list and thinks the federal government should reimburse farmers for the loss of livestock.

Ohio lawmakers this year adopted a policy that allows for compensation for livestock losses from black vultures. No claims had yet been made.

The state is on the northern edge of the black vultures' range.

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