Kentucky Buzzards Turn from Scavengers to Predators

Kentucky Buzzards Turn from Scavengers to Predators

July 5, 2015

Nashville, TN 

Charles Derringer was days away from selling his cattle when tragedy of a disturbing – but increasingly not so unusual – nature struck. The Kentucky farmer claims that a half dozen of his cattle were killed by a flock of predatory buzzards. 

“This startled me,” Derringer said. “I just can’t understand why things like that happen because, in this country, we should have a better way of thinning out these kinds of animals."

According to Derringer, vultures had been circling his farm like a cloud in the days leading up to the incident, which culminated in a sudden, vicious attack upon his herd – and upon him – last week. Going out into the pasture armed after hearing an extraordinary commotion amongst his cattle, he said that the increasingly aggressive large birds were even “dive-bombing” him as he shot at them to protect his livestock. 

Unfortunately, Derringer couldn’t save all of his cattle from the winged attackers. He claims that three heifers and three bulls were killed by the buzzards, representing a loss of nearly four thousand dollars. 

“It really upset me,” Derringer said. “Like I said before, I got mad, I got sad, and when I got down to the woods, I cried like a baby.”

Derringer is not the first farmer in Kentucky to lose his livestock to buzzard attacks. Black buzzards were a heavily discussed issue at Kentucky Farm Bureau meetings in 2014. 

Lyon County Farm Bureau Director Brent White fought for a resolution to the black buzzard problem after losing many of his own livestock to the aggressive predators. Several of his cows and calves were attacked and killed by a large roost near the Fredonia Valley area in northern Lyon County. White has been speaking to groups around Kentucky advocating for a solution ever since. 

“It’s been a terrible problem for me,” White said. “It started about two years ago. I had two newborn calves in a small pasture; they [black buzzards] came off a roost and attacked both of them. They killed one. I lost a large cow that had a hip problem; they got up on his back and pecked his eyes out. They’ve killed a couple more calves. They would follow my herd from paddock to paddock waiting to take advantage of a calf. I’ve seen some distract the cow while others attacked the calf.”

Of the two species of buzzards or vultures common to the region, it is the black buzzards which are of particular concern. (Though the red-headed turkey vultures are larger and may appear more threatening, their weak beaks and talons limit them strictly to a scavenging role.) 

“The black vultures are the ones that will eat live animals,” White said. “They are smaller and more aggressive. They will run a turkey (vulture) off a carcass. They are not afraid of humans, either.”

But it’s a difficult feat for White, Derringer, or any other farmer fallen victim to a buzzard attack to take action against the large birds. Black buzzards are largely protected underneath the Migratory Bird Act. To get a kill permit against the black buzzards farmers must go through both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA, involving a process which many farmers feel is overly cumbersome.

USDA wildlife specialist Michael Kearby suggests that there are many ways to disperse black buzzards without killing them. “A lot of times, that’s our first step in working with these farmers,” Kearby said. “We take a look at what non-lethal methods they’ve tried to use. We attempt to come up with a plan to enhance that if need be. But there’s nothing that keeps farmers from being able to harass these birds as much as they want with non-lethal methods.”

Fireworks, propane cannons, and gunshots in the air can all be effective ways to disperse black buzzards. However, many farmers feel that this is not enough. 

“I knew we couldn’t shoot them; I knew legally we have no rights,” Arkansas rancher Ginger Sandy said. “But you just can’t be there all the time when cows are calving. It’s just not feasible to always be there. Our federal lawmakers have got to change the law for us to have any protection.”

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