The Eaters of Death

It is a fine thing to lie on your belly and watch Turkey Vultures soaring far beneath you.  1400 feet below me a plateau falls away into the canyons of the Colorado and the Green Rivers.  I am lying on hot sandstone and watching two vultures, a/k/a buzzards.  I had to lie down.  Otherwise vertigo might have sent me tumbling over the edge of the precipice and I lack wings. And I do not wish to feed those vultures.  Yet.  Someday perhaps, but not now.

I have come back to this cliff late in the day, hoping to watch the sunset alone.  But it is not to be.  A small group of people is already gathering for the evening talk by the astronomy ranger at Canyonlands National Park.  I had been here earlier in the day when the place was infested with bus loads of what Edward Abbey called “industrial tourists” meaning that they come to places like this only because of the paved roads and the internal combustion engine.  Finding solitude in our national parks can be a challenge, especially on top of the “Islands in the Sky” district of Canyonlands.  We are funneled to the best viewpoints and restricted to a single developed campground.  Tomorrow my backpacking buddy and I will escape them but, for tonight, here we are.

The Turkey Vultures don’t care. I suspect the only thing finer than to be lying on my belly — out of sight of the tourists and Gordon, the astronomy ranger — on hot sandstone watching them soar, is to be one.

For hours they ride the thermals.  For hours they soar without so much as twitching a wing.  Perfectly designed for flight, they fly perfectly.  Soon the afternoon thermals on which they soar will die and they will return to earth for another night. There are two of them and they probably roost somewhere in the cliff below me.

They are the eaters of death.  Where ever death on the desert happens, they arrive to help clean it.  They are perfectly evolved for that as well.  Featherless heads and necks have evolved to enable them to dive into carrion without trapping all that bacteria in their feathers. So acute is their sense of smell that they can smell death from thousands of feet above it.  Their olfactory organ is larger than that of Andean and Californian Condors. Even certain mushrooms attract them because of their odor.  They leave the scent glands of skunks alone when they feast on a dead skunk. Apparently that smell is worse than death.

The same backpacking friend and I once came upon one in the middle of a narrow desert road.  It refused to move for the auto bearing down on it.  It was pulling what we first took to be a long stick across the road.  That was a puzzler.  Why would a buzzard be interested in a stick?  As we got closer we realized it was a dead snake.  No way was that bird going to allow that metal contraption to deprive it of its dinner.  We stopped the car and waited.

We humans, aware of the long term consequences of death and worried about it, often think of vultures as ugly.  This is a defect in our perception.  Perfection, in all its forms, is beautiful and so are they.

If you don’t believe me, spend an hour or so watching one soar.

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