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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Killer Vultures

by Clay Coppedge
There's these two vultures sitting on a fence, see, and one vulture says to the other, "Patience hell - I'm going to go kill something."

The punchline, of course, is that vultures don't kill. They feed on carrion. They eat dead things. It's who they are, it's what they do.

The humor of that old cartoon might fall a little flat for ranchers and property owners along Hartrick Bluff in Bell County, where black vultures proliferate to the point where there might not be enough dead things to go around.

Their patience having worn thin, the vultures have decided to go out and kill something - calves. These vultures don't wait until their victim is dead - they have taken to attacking calves as soon as they're born.

Bell County trapper Gary Silvers has been answering calls about calves killed by vultures for the better part of a decade. Count him among those who are no longer amused by or even skeptical about the idea of killer vultures.

He started off a little of both when he got his first call about eight years ago from a rancher saying vultures had killed a calf on his place.

"I thought he was crazy," Silvers said. "I figured he'd seen vultures on the carcass and just thought the vultures had killed the calf."

Silvers witnessed a vulture kill a few years ago when he set up on a ranch along Hartrick's Bluff close to a roosting site. He saw half a dozen or so vultures swoop in on a heifer and peck out its eyes just as the calf was being delivered. Then another group of vultures went to work on the newborn calf.

"A vulture kill is a pretty gruesome scene," Silvers said.

He said the killer vultures are black vultures, distinguished from the larger and more common turkey vulture by the white tips on the bottom of its wings and a choppier wing motion in flight.

"There were turkey vultures lined up right alongside the black vultures that day," Silvers said. "They watched the whole thing, but they didn't come down until the cow was dead."

Roy Northern's property not far from the bluff is a popular roosting site for black vultures. Last year he lost two calves to vultures. He says he liked it better when the roosts were mostly populated by turkey vultures, which rarely, if ever, attack.

"There's more and more of these new vultures," Northern says of the black vultures. "The old vultures (turkey vultures) would wait for something to die, then they would have a big feast if you let them. These new vultures don't mind at all going after a calf."

Northern said the first time he heard of such a thing was about eight years ago when a neighbor reported seeing vultures on a calf. Northern went to the scene of the alleged crime against nature but could find neither hide nor hair of the calf.

Reports of attacks by vultures have come in from other parts of the country in recent years, from the south where the number of reported attacks have increased in the last five years, as far north as Ohio.

The problem is made thornier by the fact that the black vulture is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are limits to how many even an authorized trapper like Silvers can kill in a year.

Why vultures attack is mostly a matter of speculation. Northern believes there are simply too many vultures and not enough carrion.

From the viewpoint of the unlucky calf, Silvers believes it's simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"There's something about the calves and calving, that draws them in and for some reason makes them attack."


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" >

May 10, 2005 column

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