Big Blue Birdhouse, 9/1/23: Black Vultures' Crimes Against Cows

Big Blue Birdhouse, 9/1/23: Black Vultures' Crimes Against Cows

Good morning and welcome to another installment of Big Blue Birdhouse, where we bravely say “No planet no birds”. Today I’ll be talking about the Summer 2023 issue of the Audubon magazine, which was filled to the brim with interesting news in conservation and birds.

Perhaps the most interesting story has to do with the imposing black vulture. These creatures have long lived in the American South, but in recent decades they’ve moved north. As temperatures increase, they find more and more states (and parts of Canada) habitable, and their population has boomed potentially because of the banning of the insecticide DDT. The result is that black vultures are far more present across the country than they used to be.

In some ways, this is good news. Vultures serve their role in nature: clearing out dead animal bodies helps prevent the spread of diseases. Also, I think the guys look kinda cute in a creepy way. However, black vultures are unique among their family members in that they sometimes attack living creatures. Increasingly, American cattle farmers have been blaming them for killing their newborn calves. As you can imagine, they’re quite peeved about these new residents murdering their cute young cows. However, it’s possible the blame is far too widespread. For one thing, even the accusations are marginal: millions of calf deaths have been reported since 2015, and only 10% or so were killed by predators at all. Only 1% were blamed on Black Vultures. There’s reason to think the real number is even smaller: it’s easy to blame a vulture for a calf’s death when you see its body being picked apart, but scientists think it’s possible that calves who die at birth of natural causes are simply being scavenged. Not fun to watch, but not murderous either.

The Black Vulture is an easy bad guy. Not only do they, admittedly, sometimes kill living calves, but they’re also just a nuisance. They pull shingles off of roofs, windshield wipers from cars, caulk from windows, often find farms they can hang around for possible food, and have even collided with aircrafts. No two ways about it: mass murderer or not, their presence is a headache for an increasing amount of American farmers. Smaller producers especially face risks. Even if vultures only kill a calf once in a blue moon, one unpreventable death can cause serious problems for a farm with only 20 cows. What’s the solution? For now, farms can get licenses to shoot the birds, and have been happy to do so. Bird advocates obviously would like to find another way. Some experiments have shown that vulture roosts can be dispersed with pyrotechnics or lasers, but it’s a temporary and unreliable fix. Scientists in the midwest are trying to better understand why this spread has happened and what can be done about it, but for now we probably have to accept that farmers will defend their population against any threats, real or perceived.

In a weird way, this threat is a happy story for wildlife. In a time when so many species are facing serious decreases in populations, and so many are becoming threatened, here we have the black vultures thriving for reasons we don’t fully even grasp. They’ve adapted to new areas and geography without causing serious harm to ecosystems, even helping some. Sure they’re annoying and potentially a financial issue for humans, but in the grand ecological scheme of things, this is a boon for nature. I of course understand farmers trying to maintain their livelihood, but it’s notable that we as a society tend to support the protection of animal populations until their presence becomes annoying to us. I for one hope a peace can be brokered, and these calf deaths are prevented. Then I can defend these ugly birds and their shingle stealing habits.

What else did the issue cover? There was a lovely article about equitable public transit access. An organization is trying to push certain cities to offer more options for lower class citizens to reach parks and nature trails. If you don’t have a car, it can be far more difficult to reach peaceful pockets of nature in your area. Nature for All has an injustice index for Western metro areas, in which 12 of the 15 total showed some sort of inequality in their transit access to large parks. Some had racial/ethnic issues, some it was income, some age based. Public officials are largely on board with the initiative, and Seattle has taken the step of introducing a “Trailhead Direct” busline that is operated entirely to get communities to parks and trails. It’s a fantastic idea. The Twin Cities has a fairly strong transit system but I would love a similar offering here, as I have looked into my ability to hop to refuges on my days off and it would pretty much always require a car. The light rail obviously only runs through heavily commercial and residential areas, and the bus system is lackluster outside of downtown areas.

There’s predictable problems. Trailhead Direct had over 35,000 passengers in 2019 for it’s four routes (a solid number!) but due to problems retaining mechanics and drivers, it went down to one route in 2022. In a time of nationwide labor shortages and any number of problems demanding financial attention, public officials are in a bit of a bind. There’s hope: a bill has been introduced to the United States Senate, cosponsored by the one and only Cory Booker, to create a federal grant program for these sorts of transit initiatives. It would be a great step to introducing the idea to more metro governments. I firmly believe that most city councils would get widespread support for something like the Trailhead Direct, and federal money could be the sweetener needed to get that ball rolling here in Saint Paul, a city that takes a lot of pride in its park system but still faces problems with inequitable urban planning. Nature For All, the group that largely started this fight, is optimistic about the progress they’ve made. I am too. A pilot program for a bus route in Los Angeles, taking residents to the San Gabriel Mountains, will begin in 2025 and I feel good about its chances of being a hit. On top of helping with equitable access, these programs will also decrease congestion at major parks and open up parking for the remaining drivers. It’s a win-win that wrests some power away from car culture and puts it in the hands of marginalized citizens who want to see the peaceful pockets of wildlife their tax dollars are funding. I’m all for it.

The magazine also included some book recommendations, all of which I hope to read. I’ve already read (and reviewed) a book called The Shotgun Conservationist, so keep an eye out for that review later this month. A photography contest yielded some wonderful pictures of pigeons, pelicans, and puffins. And there was a nice little article from an MLB beat writer who is also a lifelong birder. He talked about the delightful birds you can find at ballparks, and encouraged people to go to games with binoculars, as an excuse to spend some time outside and catch a game while also seeing what birds they can find. I don’t see myself going to Target Field with binoculars anytime soon, but it’s a lovely sentiment.

That concludes this jam packed Big Blue Birdhouse. If you are interested in reading more about these topics, I encourage you to subscribe to the Audubon magazine. Your money will be going towards protecting the lives of birds. Either way, though, I’ll be bringing you the most interesting stories right here on Bear Sees Birds. Thank you for reading. Next week I’ll be back with another Sports focused Culture Corner.