Friday, September 7, 2012

Let Us Praise Vultures

Last week, my friend Amy posted this poem on Facebook in honor of International Vulture Awareness Day, which falls on September 1.

Vulture by Robinson Jeffers

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing, I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, “My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.” But how beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–

What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.

I read the poem and smiled, because I like vultures, and because it makes me happy that there is a day when people all around the world are supposed to celebrate them. I searched through my photos and sent her this one add to the festivities.

Black Vultures, Sunning
As it would happen, I had just come across a vulture cartoon. This was also sent to my friend to continue the vulture festivities.

My mind started to race--what other vulture novelties could I come up with? Are there any vulture songs? Good vulture jokes? How about a story? I remembered a nice vulture story that I'd read in a book of nature essays. The author, whose name I can't recall, told how some Native American people refer to the vulture as the Peace Eagle, because it soars and scavenges, but rarely kills, and even then, mostly sick or injured animals.

As I said before, I like vultures. Here in Florida, they are very common and abundant, and in some places, like Manatee Springs or Myakka State parks, you can count hundreds of them soaring or roosting in the trees. Because they're so abundant, people tend to shrug them off as no big deal. But it you think about it, it's pretty amazing to have them all around us. They're huge birds! These raptors have wingspans of 5 feet or more! You can see them on any given day, and often see them in groups, circling upward in the thermals. When I'm outside, sometimes I can hear the rush of their wings as they flap, soaring just over the tree tops. Because they're so big, I see their shadows on the ground before I know they're overhead.
But people don't like vultures. They eat dead things. Yuck! They smell bad. Yuck! They vomit as a defense mechanism. Yuck! They destroy property. Damn them! (I wish I had a photo of the signs in the trail parking lots in the Everglades, warning that the vultures may pull off your door seals, windshield wipers, and vinyl. The park has boxes of tarps for visitors to use to cover their vehicles.) They infest ledges on tall building big cities. Grrr!
But we really need them. Vultures are known as Nature's Cleaners. Can you imagine what a mess we'd have without this first line of decomposer defenders? It may or may not be coincidence that so close to International Vulture Appreciation Day I heard a story on All Things Considered. 

The piece was about what happens when the vultures are not around to do their important work. According to the story, in Mubai, India, the Parsis (who are of Iranian descent and practice a religion called Zaroastrianism) dispose of their dead by exposing the corpse to the sun and letting it be eaten by birds of prey.  But since the 1980's vultures in India have been disappearing, and by 2007, 99% of the vultures of Mumbai had vanished.The death of the vultures has been linked to a drug (Diclofenal) that was given to cattle. Vultures who fed on any dead cattle died. The drug has since been banned, but in the meantime, the Zaroastrians needed to dispose of their dead. They believe that burying the body pollutes the earth. So they developed a "solar concentrator" that helped the corpses dry and decompose, and it eventually does the job, although it doesn't work well in the monsoon season. But this system takes weeks to do what a flock of vultures used to be able to do in a day, and it's complicated and expensive. The Indian government considering setting up a vulture sanctuary near by. But it will take years to get the vulture populations up to where they need to be.

I, for one, am very grateful for vultures. We don't have a large population of Zaroastrians needing to dispose of their dead in Gainesville, but we do have dead animals. Lots and lots of roadkill. The idea of stinking animals piling up along the roadside is horrible. Especially in summer. And what about the deer and squirrels and rabbits and other animals that die in the woods? Or when the weather gets hot and thousands of fish wash ashore in a big fish die off? It makes me breath easier (well, maybe not breathe--vulture roosts smell deadly) knowing that vultures are on the job.

Turkey Vulture

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