Mars Ethel: Vultures
In the midst of a burgeoning global pandemic, on the eve of South Carolina ‘s Democratic Primary, and in the aftermath of the stock market’s 3500-point one-week freefall, it appears that the turkey vulture perched on a dying tree outside our living room window is ill and also dying. He or she – I think of it as a she – has been there all day long hunkered into herself.
Natural deaths of animals in the wild I’ve managed not to think about all that often.
Exceptions: Once I saw a Nature episode about the deathly decline of a disease-ridden chimpanzee and his ultimate abandonment by his troop, the unfortunate creature left to shuffle off his mortal coil all alone, though one of his companions did linger a while before abandoning him.
Also, about a decade ago, the marsh behind our house was littered with bloated carcasses of raccoons felled by some parvo virus that had the parents of our diseased vulture circling overhead in narrowing gyres.
Thirty years before that, yet another ill vulture stood forlornly on a path in the woods near our house in Rantowles. We saw him so many times we gave him a name, Nigel. He lasted almost a week.
Our cat, Dusty, after insistently clawing at the glass door leading to the porch, has been let out, has pawed open the screen door, and her outdoor presence has prompted the vulture to flee the limb of the dying tree and perch on our roof. Dusty crouches on the railing of the deck, hunched into herself, staring up and over un-benignly at what now I’m convinced is an unwell scavenger.
Questions arise: Do vultures eat the carcasses of their own kind?
The consensus is not often, only during food scarcity.
Do other animals eat vultures?
No, an eagle will occasionally snatch an infant vulture from a nest, but vultures [understatement alert] smell bad, have ingested perhaps diseased organisms, so they have very few natural predators.
By the way, they’re family oriented. They feed their young for as long as eight months, though via regurgitation, which I guess is good training for the life ahead. If something is harassing them, they’ll vomit on the offending party as a defense mechanism.
They’re gregarious, hang in large groups, and can live to be twenty-five.
Nevertheless, would Dusty kill a sick vulture for sport?
“You betcha,” as people from Utah are prone to say.
Do vultures help prevent the spread of diseases?
Does the company called Bird Busters think highly of vultures?
No. From their website:
Turkey Vultures cause problems by attacking rooftops, caulking and other exterior surfaces. The bird droppings from turkey vultures are large as well, creating extra cleanup costs and concern over slip and fall liability from turkey vulture dropping buildup, plus an unclean, dirty company image. The bacteria, fungal agents and parasites found in turkey vulture droppings and nests can carry a host of serious diseases, including histoplasmosis, encephalitis, salmonella, meningitis, toxoplasmosis, and more. As an unpleasant bonus, turkey vultures often leave bones and carcasses to feed on around their roosting areas. They’re also known to be noisy problem birds, especially in a large group fighting over food.
What does the poet Richard Wilbur have to say in response to Bird Busters’ negativity concerning turkey vultures?
Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call
Unnatural, let him but lumber again to air
Over the rotten office, let him bear
The carrion ballast up, and at the tall
Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you’ll see
That no more beautiful bird is in heaven’s height,
No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;
He shoulders nature there, the frightfully free,
The naked-headed one. Pardon him, you
Who dart in the orchard aisles, for it is he
Devours death, mocks mutability,
Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.
Vultures, no doubt, give almost everyone outside ornithology the heebie-jeebies. No one likes to be reminded of his or her own mortality, especially in the midst of a burgeoning global pandemic, on the eve of South Carolina ‘s Democratic Primary, and in the aftermath of the stock market’s 3500-point one-week freefall. However, we need vultures. Without them, those dead raccoons in the marsh a decade ago would have been appreciably more horrible.
So I’m with Richard Wilbur. Here’s the rest of the poem quoted above:
Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset
The people’s ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.
 Most editors would disapprove of syntax here, but I like the way it stumbles into a confession of repression.
 I was in full hospice mode. Nursing him back to life didn’t seem like a good idea.
 Until I did that bit of research, I had very successfully avoided wondering what being puked on by a vulture would be like.