Committee-approved bill legalizes killing federally-protected buzzards in TN

A state Senate committee has voted to legalize the killing of black buzzards in Tennessee even though they are protected under federal law.

Approval of SB204 by the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee came after Charles Hord, executive vice president of the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association, described how the vultures are killing newborn calves across the state and Sen. Paul Bailey displayed photographs showing buzzard damage at a Jackson County home.

“They’re not only destroying livestock. They’ve begun destroying personal property,” said Bailey, R-Sparta.

He said the black buzzard attack, which homeowner James Meadows and his family discovered after returning from a weekend vacation, caused damage totaling more than $25,000 as estimated by an insurance adjuster — more if uninsured damage was included.

The buzzards had “begun to eat” the plastic seat covers of a motorcycle and a jet ski, wrecked swimming pool equipment, ripped out insulation and even pecked away parts of the brick beneath windows and the paint on a parked car, the senator said.

“No one can explain why they had actually attacked his house,” said Bailey, adding that he and others had initially “chuckled” at the idea of a scavenger species assaulting a home before seeing documentation.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, repeals a current state law that makes it a misdemeanor crime “for any person to disturb the habitat of, alter, take, attempt to take, possess, or transport a black vulture, also known by the name Coragyps atratus.”

Black buzzards remain a protected species under the Federal Migratory Bird Act, although Hord and others said efforts are underway to change that in Congress. The federal law provides penalties of up to $1,500 per buzzard killed and six months in prison.

The Niceley-Keisling bill declares no state resources can be used toward enforcement of the federal law, although an amendment added during committee proceedings says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency can advise Tennessee landowners on how to obtain a permit from the federal government that allows killing of the buzzards under some circumstances. The permits cost $100 and some time for processing, although Hord said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have been “working with us” to expedite issuance of permits.

Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, questioned whether the bill would put Tennessee in conflict with federal law. A legislative attorney said the bill would not do so directly, and Niceley said in an interview the net effect is to say federal officials “can enforce it if they want to” but Tennessee will not be involved.

Harris cast the only no vote as the committee approved the bill 7-1, although Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, abstained. The measure is scheduled for a vote in a House subcommittee this week.

There are two species of buzzards, also known as vultures, in Tennessee, and both are primarily scavengers relying on dead animals for food.

Besides the black buzzard, there is the turkey buzzard, easily distinguished as adults by a featherless red head similar to that of a turkey — although ornithologists say young turkey buzzards appear similar to a black buzzard.

Niceley said turkey buzzards, which are not known to attack newborn calves and are generally more gentle and environmentally beneficial, have also suffered from a ballooning population of black buzzards. Turkey buzzards have a sense of smell while black buzzards do not, Nicelely said, allowing them to find dead animals while black buzzards rely solely on sight. But the black buzzards have learned to watch turkey buzzards and follow them to a carcass, he said.

“The black buzzards will swarm a carcass, shoving the turkey vultures out of the way so they don’t get to eat. They’ll beat up on the gentle old turkey buzzards,” said Niceley. “The turkey buzzards go hungry while the black buzzards eat… that’s why we’ve got lots of black buzzards now and not as many turkey buzzards.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website says something along the same lines: “The black vulture makes up for its poor sense of smell by following turkey vultures to carcasses.”

“The black buzzards will swam a carcass, shoving the turkey vultures out of the way so they don’t get to eat. They’ll beat up on the gentle old turkey buzzards,” said Niceley. “The turkey buzzards go hungry while the black buzzards eat… that’s why we’ve got lots of black buzzards now and not as many turkey buzzards.”

Here’s a picture of the buzzards at the Jackson County home, taken by the homeowner and part of a slide show to the Senate committee:
buzzard