Nature Diary 5: Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura)

Daily observation and daily writing are my goals, and I’m pleasantly surprised how well I’m able to stay with them. They are rules I’ll try to carry with me beyond this exceptional era. However daily sharing may not be reasonable. Polish takes time, which I have in spades, and energy, which I can’t always muster. We must be kind to ourselves and recognize when we’re asking too much. Rest is essential for clarity and creativity.

I was passing by the road leading to a now abandoned elementary school when I heard loud, frantic flapping, like tattered flags caught in a windstorm. I whipped around to see what was causing the racket.

Two huge black turkey vultures were squabbling over a snag perch, clumsily batting and prodding each other with their enormous wings. The one who couldn’t keep a good talon-hold eventually gave up and resigned itself to settling a couple trees over. If turkey vultures can glower, this one was glowering darkly at its rival while the other bird sat nonchalantly preening the white tips of its wings.

The victor bird dislodged one of its large primary feathers with its bill. I watched the stray feather spiral down into the middle of the road, landing near a thoroughly mangled grey squirrel. Two more birds hunched over the carcass. A red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) was eagerly ripping off strips of skin while another vulture shuffled from foot to foot at its side, waiting in case there were any leftovers.

I crossed the street to get a closer look at nature red in tooth and claw and realized there were 14 big black birds in the trees above my head. Were they all there to pester the hawk for tablescraps? It hardly seemed worth the trouble. A squirrel is a meager meal for four vultures, let alone 14 bickering over scant remains.

14 turkey vultures loitering around the edge of the schoolyard. The timely symbolism wasn’t lost on me. My dark sense of humor runs rampant these days. As carrion birds who follow the stench of death and rot, vultures are often seen as omens of bad things to come. The people who jogged past me glanced at what I was watching, shuddered, and quickly turned their heads away from the figures in the trees. I understood. Superstition conquers rational thought in times of uncertainty.

But these vultures made me laugh. They jostled for position on the branches, all trying to be closest to the road in case the hawk decided to leave its kill. They also seemed wary of the hawk, almost deferential. Other birds like crows might mob a hawk on the wing for its catch, or caw and bully until the annoyance makes the hunter give up. The vultures were almost twice the size of the hawk. Fear seemed ridiculous. Maybe they honored squatters rights – the hawk got there first so it got first pickings, if it would share at all? Maybe they eyed its gleaming talons and hooked bill; if the hawk could rend a squirrel limb from limb, what could it do to them? Despite what their ominous mythos in our culture might suggest, vultures are fairly docile creatures. They don’t want any trouble; just a small piece of the kill.

The vultures were also very skittish of me. Every time I approached one of their trees, the bird directly above me bobbed its gnarled red head and huffed as it shuffled further up the branch. If I dared take another step, it flapped a few branches or trees away, often displacing the bird who already occupied that spot, who in turn flew for another spot, inevitably too close to another bird, who then retreated several trees further up the road, and the cycle repeated.

I continued this funny dance for a while, playing chicken with turkey vultures. I’d move a little closer, they’d counter a few steps away. Sometimes I’d look down at the pavement to see if they would lose interest. They didn’t. I could feel all 14 sets of beady eyes trained on the top of my head. When I looked up again, they were all staring with rapt attention. I gazed directly back until they spooked and shuffled perches again.

The red-shouldered hawk makes off with its kill while a vulture watches.

While we played, the hawk took my diversion as a chance to snatch the half-eaten squirrel in its talons and escape. The vulture by its side blinked at where the squirrel had been instants ago. It followed after the hawk for a few flaps but circled back to land in the trees near its comrades. The rest paid no attention, too focused on my stalking. I felt bad about letting the hawk escape with their meal, but then again, I figured the hawk wasn’t likely to share anyway.

Was I an enemy to them? Did they think I would climb up the tree and attack them? Was I like the hawk, a rival creature of untold ferocity? Did they really fear me like the other joggers may have feared them? Again, it seemed ridiculous for giant black birds to be afraid of a hysterically giggling small woman in a purple hoodie. Was I merely a curiosity, as they were to me? Did they also see this as a game?

Whatever their reactions towards me, they eventually abandoned the trees and our little game. They congregated in a swirling kettle formation high overhead, then turned on the wind and soared off to sniff out another meal.

I’ve always loved watching vultures be vultures. There’s a charming gleefulness to their antics. When they sail on updrafts or sun their wing feathers along a farm fence, I can’t help but think these are creatures with a real zeal for life. Roving scavengers with wrinkly bald heads can’t take themselves too seriously.

I’ll never know how they saw our encounter or how they view their place in nature. I only know I was grateful for our connection, a few moments of levity in a gloomy world. I’m doing my best to keep superstition at bay, but seeing them felt like a good omen.

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