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Bills would permit ranchers to shoot two scavenger birds, but only one threatens livestock

Scientists say crested caracaras aren't known to kill livestock.
Scientists say crested caracaras aren't known to kill livestock.

Vultures are well-known scavengers. They’re the trash collectors of the animal world – consuming dead carcasses that nothing else will touch.

Vultures are not exclusively carrion eaters, however. Occasionally, they will attack an animal.

“We know that these predation events [by black vultures] are without a doubt a real thing that’s happening,” said Marian Wahl, a doctoral candidate at Purdue University who’s studying how and when black vultures kill livestock.

Black vultures are one of the few birds whose population is increasing. They play a valuable part in their ecosystem because of their diet. But some ranchers are frustrated by the regulatory hoops required to shoot them if they threaten livestock.

Right now, it’s illegal to shoot a black vulture without a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’re protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects native, non-game birds in the U.S., not just those that migrate.

But under a new bill, ranchers could shoot first and file permits later. The Black Vulture Relief Act, would let ranchers legally kill birds that threaten their livestock, and then inform wildlife authorities that they’d done so. Sen. Markwayne Mullin, a Republican from Oklahoma, wrote the bill. Sen. Ted Cruz is one of its co-sponsors.

It’s similar to another piece of legislation filed earlier this year by two Texans. Rep. August Pfluger, a Republican from San Angelo, wrote a resolution to allow ranchers to shoot crested caracaras that may attack their livestock, even if they don’t have a permit to do so. It’s co-sponsor is Rep. Henry Cuellar, a South Texas Democrat.

Crested caracaras are also protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They are sometimes called Mexican eagles, but they’re really part of the falcon family. They’re distinctive birds, with an orange face, black cap and body, a white neck, and long yellow legs.

Caracaras are native to Mexico and South Texas, but in recent years they’ve spread northward. They’re smart, opportunistic, and like vultures, will eat pretty much whatever they can find.

“They have an extremely diverse diet,” said Tania Homayoun, state ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Even in the carcasses they may be foraging on, they may also be taking advantage of some of the invertebrates – the bugs and things that may be coming to the carcasses as well. It’s like ‘if it’s there, and it’s edible, let’s take advantage of it.’”

The idea that caracaras attack livestock, however, is not true according to the people who study them.

“Somebody give me a video – not just a photo – but a video, of somebody actually witnessing a killing. Because so far there hasn’t been any. That piece of evidence is really critical, and I think any responsible congressperson or news person would ask for that evidence. Demand that evidence,” said Joan Morrison, who’s studied crested caracaras for more than 30 years as a biology professor at Trinity College.

Some ranchers swear that caracaras kill livestock. Reid Redden, state sheep and goat specialist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, has not personally seen a caracara attack a live animal, but he’s heard about it from lots of the ranchers he works with.

“They’ll be on the ground near a ewe that’s just given birth to lambs, or a nanny that’s just given kids. They’ll get in there and harass them and try to sort off a young one,” Redden said.

Redden said that by the time a rancher gets their permit approved to shoot a vulture or a caracara, it’s often too late.

Morrison has heard the same things, but she thinks that ranchers are misinterpreting what happened.

“What often I think is happening is that people see caracaras grouped around something that is already dead – a calf that either was stillborn, or maybe was very weak and it couldn’t get up and it died. There’s just not a possibility that caracaras are going to go after something that large. That’s a lot, it just isn’t going to happen,” said Morrison.

Crested caracaras weigh about two pounds and will hunt small prey like lizards and fish. They tend to be alone or in small cliques, whereas black vultures hang out in big groups.

In 1990, researchers in Argentina published a paper after watching a pasture in Patagonia for 100 hours. They wanted to see which predators attacked the sheep that grazed there, including crested caracaras. The birds were often present, but the scientists observed no interactions whatsoever between caracaras and live animals.

Reps. Pfluger and Cuellar did not accept interview requests for this story, nor did they respond to written questions. Both their bill and the black vulture bill are waiting for a hearing, and have a long way to go before becoming law.

Researchers agree that this question about caracaras killing livestock needs additional investigation, though. If this is something you’ve seen or documented, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, or log your observation on a site like eBird or iNaturalist.

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