Protecting the predator: Raven attacks on the rise in Colorado
January 18, 2018
Entirely black. Legs, eyes, beak and feathers. Not usually social and typically found alone or in pairs. Unless they are at a feeding ground, that is. Ravens, the black is deeper than what meets the eye for many livestock producers.
Currently protected under federal law, ravens pose a very real threat to successful land and livestock management. Justin and Holli Sollenbarger own and operate P Diamond Livestock in North Park, Colorado, which sits at 9,000 feet. The Sollenbargers first began having issues with ravens in 2008 and have seen those problems escalate rapidly since then. "We had a really hard winter in 2008 with lots of snow for an extended period," Holli Sollenbarger said. With a shortage of food to scavenge, the ravens turned to other means of survival. Sollenbarger said, "We would come out to check calves and find them pecked really bad; typically, around the eyes, tailhead, and meaty part of the hip in these young calves." And not just a single peck here and there either. "In these baby calves, we often see golf ball sized holes that have been pecked at all the way to the bone. It is a sickening sight," Sollenbarger said.
Common ravens are found in almost every habitat across the northern hemisphere and, as a scavenger, will eat almost anything they get ahold of. Known as a sly and intelligent bird, ravens are not negatively impacted by the presence of people. With a wingspan on average of 46 inches, ravens are about 1.5 times the size of the American crow with a heftier build and wedge-shaped tail. Their flight can be intriguing to watch. Protection from trapping and hunting due to the Migratory Bird Act secures the species long-term success, which has livestock producers concerned.
Since 2008, P Diamond Livestock have seen the incidents of raven-related injuries and deaths steadily increase. "This spring alone we had five to six calves in the vet room suffering from holes that the ravens had pecked in their hide. Last summer we lost two herd bulls," said Sollenbarger. Ravens are sly and intelligent birds that seem to not be selective about where their next meal comes from. "The perception is that ravens are migratory, but we have issues with them year-round. Our biggest problems in relation to the ravens are with young calves, freshly branded cattle, and big bulls who are too long bodied to defend themselves from the birds," Sollenbarger said. "In older cattle, we often find holes in the brands," said Sollenbarger
"It is not just us either, our neighbors face big problems with the ravens attacking their bulls too," said Sollenbarger. These big bulls are simply too large to fend off the ravens and can become worn down from the constant pecking. "We have seen the holes get even bigger than baseball sized around and they will peck all the way down to the bone in these bulls or freshly branded cattle. Once the ravens have had their way with these bulls their health goes way down," said Sollenbarger.
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It seems there is not much a rancher can do to help their livestock once the ravens have latched on. Sollenbarger said, "We usually have to bring the animal in and pack the hole with salve; but even then, the ravens will often peck it out and reopen the hole. It works best to leave the animal indoors for a few days."
A rancher's success each year is often dependent upon healthy calves and producers are faced with enough problems without having to deal with the extra headache caused by ravens. "When calves get sick, often with scours, the ravens will start pecking at them anywhere the calf is unresponsive. This almost always leads to an infection and usually we lose the calf," said Sollenbarger.
"They are just nasty things, really dirty birds that carry diseases from ranch to ranch and expose cowherds to health problems they have not been faced with before," Sollenbarger said. In the case of ravens, scavenger has a different meaning. "They seem to almost enjoy picking on the weak, no doubt they are smart. Any animal that has less of a will to fend off the ravens is the one they will usually go for," said Sollenbarger.
Producers who are faced with the raven crisis offer an analogy for comparison. "Protecting the raven is like protecting the wolf; the raven is to a magpie like the wolf is to a coyote. Ravens and wolves both have no natural predators and thus have a confidence about them that we can't do much about," Sollenbarger said. When asked if there was a stronger prevalence of issues with coyotes or ravens in North Park, Sollenbarger said, "To put it in perspective, last year government trappers flew in with a helicopter and killed 11 coyotes in 1 day. Yet, the problems with coyotes don't even begin to touch our problems with the ravens."
Ravens are opportunists
For most cattle producers, the idea that ravens cause a bigger threat than coyotes to their livestock is unpleasant to say the least. "They are opportunist; they will spot a cow that has just calved who has not yet slicked her afterbirth and they will start to come after the afterbirth," said Sollenbarger. "Not just one bird though, we could handle it if the numbers were smaller. But no, 20, 30, 40 birds at one time will circle the cow and in the cow's defense to fend off the birds she'll often accidentally stomp the calf and end up killing it. Pretty sad sight to see," Sollenbarger said.
Chuck Brost, cattle operations manager for Spruce Mountain Ranch of Larkspur, Colorado has also seen a spike in the number of ravens on the ranch. "I do not recall really seeing any ravens when I first started at Spruce Mountain several years ago," Brost said, "but their prevalence has certainly grown." Spruce Mountain is located in between Castle Rock and Monument and sports an abundance of wildlife and spruce trees. "We have never had any problems with the birds and our cattle, but the sheer number of the birds is incredible. Knowing how damaging they can be makes me wish we didn't have them," said Brost.
The attacks are not just limited to cattle at the P Diamond ranch though. "Just last week we had a mare foal when the ravens started circling," said Sollenbarger, "and that was even with the afterbirth already gone and cleaned up. We were just lucky we got to the mare and foal in time before the mare accidentally stomped on her while trying to defend them from the ravens." The sage grouse populations have taken a major decline since the raven population influx at the P Diamond as well. "The ravens love to eat sage grouse eggs and the sage grouse aren't protected; this is where we as ranchers may gain a leg to stand on," said Sollenbarger.
Ravens cannot be hunted currently with their protected status. Sollenbarger said, "Our only current method of control is to hire government trappers to put out poisoned eggs. This takes a lot of time and tedious paperwork though and it can seem overwhelming to start the process." But with no natural predators or means of population control, livestock producers may not have any other option. "My theory is that we all need to come together and get something started to help defend our livestock from the ravens. We must find the time to pursue changing the policy and how ravens are handled," said Sollenbarger. "Changing the policy will take a lot of man hours, but we have to start somewhere," Sollenbarger said.
To learn more about raven attacks, visit realagriculture.com.