Posts Tagged ‘death’

The Elegance of Vultures

December 3, 2012

TV -1We had our first “up close and personal” meeting with a Turkey Vulture this weekend. She is a rescued bird who cannot be released into the wild and so is kept by our local wildlife rescue facility as an educational bird. We had a special shopping/fund-raising event at The Fat Finch over the weekend and the wildlife rescue folks brought several birds for our shoppers to see.

As is my custom when photographing portraits, I spent a little time getting to know her before hauling out my camera. (Knowing something about your subjects is critical if you are do them justice in a portrait.) Surprisingly, after watching her for a little while I realized that the word that kept arising in my mind to describe her was “elegant”.

Somehow most of us don’t associate vultures with elegance. But the grace with which she moves, the gentle brilliance of her eyes, and her centered calmness all add up to elegance. Think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly in feathers.

Of course, I’m not the first to note fine qualities in Turkey Vultures. Here is Edward Abbey,

Let us praise the noble turkey vulture: No one envies him; he harms nobody; and he contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height.

TV 2-1And I shouldn’t have been at all surprised with her down-to-earth elegance. I’ve spent many happy hours in my life watching vultures soar on thermals high with hardly a feather stirring as they ride on outstretched wings. Elegantly.

But they are the eaters of death and I suppose that is why we don’t usually associate them with elegance. We have a New Yorker cartoon refrigerator magnet in the store that shows two vultures sitting on a tree talking to one another. One vulture says to the other, “Of course dead is important but taste matters too.”

And I must say that after meeting her I agree entirely with Abbey who, before dying, made arrangements to feed his death to the vultures. He wrote,

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture–that is immortality enough for me.

Jays and Peanuts – Part II

September 10, 2010

In the last post, I anthropomorphized birds, accusing some Steller’s Jays of being “stubborn” and “cantankerous”  because they refused to come to get peanuts placed on top of my car. (As you can see, they finally did, but it took them a full 24 hours before they succumbed.)I charged an Oregon Junco with impertinency and suggested that hummingbirds think they have property rights.  None of those adjectives can  be applied to any animal in the world except Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

That we attribute such emotions to animals says more about us than it does them. A tribute to our egocentric view of the world that often misses the richness of differing awareness, it perversely reinforces a view of the world in which we are separate from nature. That’s not to say that animals don’t have emotions, many obviously do. But they arise from differing consciousness and from senses that perceive the world differently.

For example, this deer obviously can hear better than we can. She’s at a salt lick in these photos and every few seconds yanks her head up from the salt and has a look around.  Actually, she’s probably having a good listen around. Those ears hear further than her eyes can see, especially in an old growth forest. A human will likely ascribe her apparent nervousness to fear. She is a prey species and, to our minds, it makes sense that she is afraid, but I wonder. Checking around like that is bred so deeply in her genes, I bet she is completely unaware that she does it, like a fish is unaware of water. More likely, she’s just enjoying the salt.

Which is not to say that animals don’t know fear.

But they don’t know, probably, anything about the Great Mystery,  the possibility of non-being, mortality. That saves them from the Great Fear. Foreknowledge of death appears absent in animals and they don’t seem to understand the world’s absences. Humans can never entirely rid ourselves of the Great Fear. We know too much about death and not enough about the aftermath. The best we can do is try following Emily Dickinson’s advice,  “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to Heaven.”

The Eaters of Death

September 22, 2008

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.

Auspicious Bird Watching

November 5, 2007

Today we add a new category category to our our blog blog. We call it the Department of Redundant Redundancies. Our title today is the charter member of the category. It is the result of one of the delightful synchronicities of blogging. A friend of a friend mentioned to our friend that “auspicious” means “watching birds.” Our friend, the blogger at , passed the information along to us for research.

His friend was correct.

Our word “auspice” is a combination of two Latin words “awi” and “specere.” “Awi” means “bird” and “specere” means “to observe” or “to look at.” Thus “auspicious” means to observe birds, so “auspicious bird watching” is redundant.

We get a lot of words from “specere”. Spy, espionage, despicable, [to look down on] specimen, spectacle, speculate, circumspect, conspicuous, expect, despise, retrospect, suspect, perspective and – one of our new favorites – transpicuous, which isn’t even in our spelling dictionary and means, “easily understood or seen through.” Our friend who told us about “auspicious” is transpicuous: He didn’t want to have to look up all these words so he tricked us into doing it.

From “awi,” we get osprey, ostrich, oval, ovary, caviar and bustard; but we wouldn’t call our friend a bustard just because he tricked us into doing all this work.

But back to more respectable birds. Another of the Latin words that comes from these base words is “auspicium” which means “omen” or “divination.” Romans watched birds and flights of birds for clues about the future. Thus Shakespeare has Casca say to Cicero:

Yesterday the bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market place,
Hooting and shrieking.

That was a bad omen, a bad “augury”; a word which means “portent” or “divination from omens”. (By the way, the “bird of night” Shakespeare referred to was an owl; another example of the bad but undeserved reputations of owls that Mr. Forbush talked about here.) Birds provided clues to the future. In Rome a body of officials known as “augurs” interpreted bird behavior and only political leaders were allowed to know how the augurs interpreted the omens. The augurs did not have it too bad. They were also priests who presided during Roman fertility rituals.

Finally, from this “auspicious bird watching” comes perhaps the best of all of Shakespeare and certainly the best literary reference ever accorded to sparrows. When Osric brings Hamlet the challenge from Hamlet’s uncle to fence with Laertes, Hamlet is worried and senses that something is wrong. Indeed, something evil is afoot but Hamlet does not know what. Laertes’ sword is poisoned and he intends to kill Hamlet. Hamlet is suspicious and tells his friend Horatio that something is “ ill. . . here about my heart.” Horatio begs Hamlet to pay attention to the omen and not go fence with Laertes. Hamlet’s reply is the reply that we all might like to make in the face of our own deaths:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.

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