May 13, 2021

Purdue asks livestock producers for help studying losses due to black vultures

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — With spring calving season in full swing, experts are reaching out to livestock producers asking for their help in determining how black vultures are affecting their operation.

They are looking for producers to donate calves that they believe were killed by black vultures so that researchers can perform necropsies on the animals free of charge. They hope to learn signs that can determine whether a calf was killed by vultures or simply scavenged.

Patrick Zollner, a quantitative ecologist at Purdue University, said a case study was started to research into black vulture habits and methods that could be used to stop them from harming livestock.

The study originated from hearing accounts from livestock producers, Zollner said.

It began when Lee Humberg, who serves as the Indiana state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, along with Brett Dunlap, who is Humberg’s counterpart in Kentucky and Tennessee, noticed increasing reports of conflicts with black vultures in both Indiana and Kentucky as part of their work to help reduce human and wildlife conflict.

This discovery then led Humberg and Dunlap to reach out to Bryan Kluever, National Wildlife Research Center station leader, which led to Zollner being contacted to help learn more about where black vultures cause damage and how much damage they’re causing and help determine better ways to manage these birds.

Black vultures have been critically understudied in the Midwest, Zollner said.

“We decided to collaboratively mentor a Ph.D. student whose dissertation would focus on addressing critical knowledge gaps in this area,” he said.

Zollner said they were fortunate to receive financial support from Region 3 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help supplement the funds from Kluever’s agency to help them research black vultures and, specifically, reach out to livestock producers about the problems vultures can pose and the best options for resolving any conflict.

The first thing the study did was establish two immediate research priorities.

“The first was to determine how we can distinguish livestock killed by black vultures from livestock that was already dead and merely scavenged by vultures. Our second objective was to obtain and estimate of when and where black vultures were causing conflicts,” Zollner said.

They got lucky when it came to finding an expert to help with their first objective.

“For our first objective, we were fortunate to already have contact with Grant Burcham of the Heeke Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. He has experiences conducting autopsies on a few animals that were know to have been killed by vultures,” Zollner said.

For the second objective, they planned to develop and distribute surveys about black vulture conflicts.

“We then hired Marian Wahl as the Ph.D. student who would lead the research investigating these priorities while developing plans to pursue further questions,” Zollner said.

Wahl collaborated with the Human Dimensions Lab at Purdue and co-developed a survey with Zhao Ma and Brooke McWherter, who was one of Ma’s doctoral students.

“Through this collaboration, the team developed a more sophisticated survey that expanded on our initial priorities to include measures to help us understand how black vultures are perceived by livestock produces, in addition to how often they are occurring,” Zollner said.

Wahl is still looking for carcasses.

If you are a livestock producer from Indiana or Kentucky and have livestock you believe was killed by black vultures, call 317-647-5294 and let Wahl know if you are willing to donate the carcass of that animal.

Ashley Langreck

Field Editor