By Anna Morris
Late one spring afternoon in college, I went to see Ed. As I creaked open the door to his room, he threw up all over the floor. This wasn’t unexpected; he and I were not well acquainted, I was about four feet taller than him, and I was about to ask him to step inside a dark box, travel across the state, and be displayed to a group of wide-eyed, squirming children. So, there were nerves on both sides. I didn’t blame him, but I wasn’t happy with how either of us now smelled. I took his reaction as a “No, thank you” to the trip to meet the children.
It took several weeks for Ed and me to patch up our relationship, and it wasn’t smooth soaring. Ed’s toenails grew quickly, and they would curl off to one side if not kept trimmed. The manicure, another on his list of least-favorite activities, involved wrapping him in a towel to keep flailing to a minimum. He had a long, strong, sinewy neck, at the end of which hooked a keratinized can-opener, and when I failed to get the towel over his face and body in one smooth motion, he whipped around and bit me hard on the cheek.
At first brush, and compared to my other colleagues, Ed had little to recommend him. Temperament aside, he was mostly bald, with random tufts of coarse black fuzz sprouting from his wrinkled head. His conversation was uncomplicated, as he could only muster grunts and hisses. He and his habitation always smelled like old, old laundry, no matter how often they were cleaned.
But—those eyelashes. That cool, black shine to his coat.
As a turkey vulture, Ed wasn’t considered “charismatic megafauna.” He wasn’t fluffy, nor did he have large, liquid eyes and a cuddly demeanor. He wasn’t majestic; he didn’t have tiger stripes or a polar bear stature, and he couldn’t rocket out of the sky at two hundred miles per hour like a peregrine falcon. In fact, Ed couldn’t fly at all. That was how he found himself pursuing new employment in a suburban backyard before he was taken on with an environmental education program.
In his new life, he got food handed to him six days a week, the chance for games like find-the-chicken and rip-the-paper, enrichment that he got daily. Ed was known to be able to untie a falconer’s knot—a multi-looped slip knot with a catch in it—and he did so because pulling at things was natural and irresistible to him. In the wild, Ed would have been pulling open deer carcasses to get to the juicy organs inside. In front of squirming children during educational presentations, he pulled on the sleeve of my shirt, leaving behind little holes.
People who work closely with wild animals that are destined to return to the wild deal with habituation. We try not to let the fluffy ducklings think of us as “mother.” We shoo the freshly released songbirds further into the meadow when they would hang about their old aviaries, because they are supposed to be flying free. We go to all lengths to prevent the young American Kestrel from one day deciding that a human shoulder is a good perch. We wear masks and costumes; we work silently. But we overlook, in all our efforts, the strange process of our own habituation. I have not met anyone who has spent any time with a vulture who does not find them beautiful, companionable, and at the very least, worthy of profound respect.
The first turkey vulture I met used to watch me as I raked out an adjacent enclosure in their rehabilitation center. Without looking up, I knew the vulture had arrived because of the tremendous rush of air that preceded him, and the terrible scrape and ruffle of feathers as he settled down. The vulture poked his wrinkled red head through the fencing, the tiny white tip of his beak twitching this way and that, glancing at the rake, glancing at me. (The bobwhite whose enclosure I was cleaning scurried out of view, his dumpling of a body vanishing behind shelter. He was fine when it was all about food, yes, but now that it had come to raking, he suddenly had another engagement.)
“Hey there,” I reflexively greeted the vulture. He turned on his flat perch to find a comfortable spot, lifted his brown wings, and sat down. The tip of his beak, curled down and sharpened to a point, was curious, not ravenous. I poured out the bobwhite’s water dish with a great splash, and the movement intrigued the vulture further. He leaned in. His eyes, nondescript bulges from either side of his egg-shaped head, were soulful. “Nice sunny day you have.”
Compare a turkey vulture—which, I suppose, to New World explorers looked somewhat like the wild turkey: ungainly and small-headed—to a peregrine falcon. Both have sharp, hooked beaks, large wings, and diets of meat. But peregrines are swift. Peregrines are regal, deadly, rock-star birds, with black masks over their heads like crowns, a blue-black robes along their backs, bright gold feet and eyes as sharp as their talons. Peregrines were the birds of princes and kings, and these days, they have more loyal subjects across the country who are devoted to them than did King Arthur in his day.
I have nothing against the peregrine—far from it. But unique things enthrall me about vultures. They are the things that most intrigue me in people. The person who can talk to a toad, apologize to a wasp, and let a snake go on its way with a twinge of admiration for the often maligned creature captivates me. The things we share with the “other nations” of the living, as Henry Beston put it in The Outermost House, are the most important encounters of the time we walk the Earth. It is us: our culture, our superstitions, our fear of our own mortality that has saddled the vulture with a bad name. We need vultures, as we always have, to keep the landscape we like to pretend we own clean and whole.
I never knew what kind of reaction to expect when I introduced the elderly female turkey vulture to our nature center’s visitors. She got everything from giggles, to gasps, to unabashed murmurs of disgust. The large black-brown bird’s poor posture didn’t fit the image promised in the program’s title: “Winged Wonders,” and I once had a woman straight up declare the poor bird “revolting.” (I was rendered speechless, as if she’d just insulted my grandmother to her face.) However, the ecology and conservation of vultures has become a familiar talking point to many educators like myself, most of whom (that I know of) are enthralled by the birds. Vultures therefore are especially important ambassador animals for environmental education presentations, helping to illustrate sometimes difficult biological concepts. Getting to meet one up close does the most to help people develop a sympathy that will be essential to vultures’ continued survival.
Our vulture was injured as an adult bird in 1981 in Utah. She sustained a severely fractured right wing, likely from a car collision, so she could only spread it open about halfway. She also came in missing the talons on five of her eight toes, likely due to frostbite that occurred in between when she was injured and when she was rescued. But she has a curious glint in her eyes, and long lashes bordering them. She tugs at towels, sheets, shoelaces, and meanders, daintily and surreptitiously, toward papers and scrub brushes that are lying unattended. She is gloriously iridescent in the full sunlight of summer. As of 2022, she is in her later early forties, and she no longer has terrific balance. Before she retired from ambassadorial duties, we walked carefully with her on a glove, or gave her free run of the presentation stage. When she’d had her fun, her sun, and her mealworms (a special treat), she folded her wings and walked off stage on her own. Sometimes, toward the end of a presentation, I would wrap up my story early, and fall quiet while my audience, absorbed by the vulture’s slow, curious wandering, did the same. We watched her discover, react, and experiment—things that we do ourselves. These moments are the most rewarding of my job: watching people find the simple, familiar creature encased in her dark feathers. Over the course of her ten minutes in the spotlight, she teased the audience’s revulsion out into wonderment.
The difference between reading about an animal, steeped in the preconceptions that surround it, and meeting one eye-to-eye, is enormous. Dozens of studies have shown that such interactions with live animals lead to longer attention to the presentation, better memory for the things learned, and increased support for wildlife conservation. Our turkey vulture, having lost her ability to pursue her calling—that of a free-flying bird of the desert southwest in search of carcasses to eat and cliffs to nest upon—instead helps ensure the rest of her species gets that chance.
We retired the turkey vulture from public programs when she turned thirty-eight. At that time she had started to act more and more uncomfortable during her outings amongst strangers, strollers, and children, and we decided she had earned a few quiet years to pursue her own ends.
The next spring, however, the old girl started gaining weight. This caught our attention, as she was still receiving the same diet each day, polishing off no more of her chicken, rats, and rabbit than usual. We had always expected her to shed ounces in her old age, but then she put on six in three days.
A few weeks before, another of our elderly residents had succumbed to a kidney ailment, and my internal alarm bells were still ringing. I imagined as I lay awake at night that the beautiful vulture was developing some deep abscess we wouldn’t know about until it was too late. Still, she was not in obvious pain, and her behavior had not changed at all. The other staff members were inclined to hope the vulture was just pigging out in anticipation of a chilly April.
At the same time, some other changes were happening, including major renovations to the rehabilitation hospital at the nature center. The construction meant we had to move some of the ambassador birds from their accustomed aviaries to different enclosures temporarily. Since change can be stressful for all animals, humans included, we were closely monitoring the behavior of the old vulture. We thought she would have the hardest time with the move; the last thing any of us expected was that she would embrace the change.
One April morning, my coworker, Bren, and I lay on our stomachs in the dusty gravel of the turkey vulture’s new abode, watching her exhibit a strange new behavior. The vulture was crouching low under a wedge of wooden platform, set against one wall but open to the rest of the enclosure. She was picking around in the small stones, her white-tipped beak nosing a little here, a little there, sometimes picking something up and flicking it around. Bren wondered if she had discovered some pieces of old meat-bits left behind by the previous tenant—a young black vulture with a variable appetite. But there was something more casual in her fiddling with the substrate, more absent-minded. Move a stone, look at it, move it again. Look at us humans, behaving strangely ourselves.
Soon she abandoned the endeavor and walked over to nibble on my hair. Bren and I shook our heads and went about our work.
The next day, he put out a call through the staff radios. “Bren to Education Team.”
“I think…I think the turkey vulture laid an egg.”
Each sitting in our offices, we poked our heads out into the common space, then simultaneously bolted off towards the vulture’s enclosure.
In his hand, Bren cradled a four-inch-long, cream-colored, speckled egg, weighing nearly three ounces. That explained her weight gain. The egg was lightly pointed on one end, the shape of an egg laid by birds that soar over long distances, like vultures.
We all stared at the egg, then took turns holding it. It was cool to the touch. The turkey vulture had evidently not been incubating it since it was laid, and it would not have been fertile anyway. She hadn’t even seen a male turkey vulture in at least twenty years. She did not rekindle her interest even when I offered it to her later. Had it been presented to her at mealtime, I am certain she would have eaten it. The predominant emotions in the room were joy at the vulture’s accomplishment, and confusion at her motivation. After so many years, why now?
She was, we remembered, fully retired for the first time this spring. Being expected to participate in public presentations likely prevented the vulture, in her mind, from having the time and energy to start a family. Additionally, the new low, wedge-shaped platform which she had been rooting under perhaps seemed like a cave, a place where turkey vultures would naturally nest. Birds do not experience menopause or reproductive senescence, and so can go on laying eggs right up until the end of their lives. The oldest known wild bird of any species, a Laysan albatross named Wisdom, continues to lay an egg every year on Midway Atoll even at seventy-one years of age.
Our turkey vulture is among the oldest known of her species on the planet; another ambassador vulture across the country has her beat by five years. But this longevity only belies the dangers vultures face in the wild. The oldest known turkey vulture that lived its whole life as a wild bird was found dead at age sixteen. Hit by cars as they forage for roadkill, electrocuted on improperly configured power-lines, hit by wind turbines, and poisoned by people who don’t understand the importance of scavengers, vultures in the wild need our help often, and live longer lives when they are shielded from these dangers.
More than half of the world’s twenty-two vulture species are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Without the intervention of conservation groups, and the understanding and cooperation of people globally, these species are at risk of extinction within my lifetime. And yet, in the western world today, we are taught to believe that vultures, scavenging birds of the order Cathartiformes (the “purifiers”) are repulsive, filthy, ugly birds who subsist on the dead, rotting carcasses of larger animals. Vultures are also regarded as cowardly and stupid, benefiting from others’ misfortune, rarely capturing their own prey like the nobler eagles or falcons. Vultures circling overhead is an omen for death or disease, and the term “vulture” is derogatory slang for a person who profits from another's loss.
It is hard to believe there was ever a time when vultures were viewed differently: as symbols of motherhood, protection, life-renewal, and cleansing. That there was a time when they were considered pure, intelligent birds that were worshipped as gods.
Today, vultures face extinction because of human attitudes and superstitions; vultures are shot, poisoned, or merely disregarded as important components of an ecosystem, and allowed to succumb to accidental, preventable deaths. By maintaining the image of the vulture as a symbol of disease and death, and denying their natural and cultural history alongside humans, we continue to be beholden to a strange twist of fate, from nearly seven hundred years ago, that changed what vultures stood for in our eyes, to the detriment of the most basic elements of the world’s ecosystems.
India and the Middle East are today home to many of the endangered vulture species, though we know that they were once abundant in that part of the world. One need look no further than ancient Egyptian art and hieroglyphics to understand how vultures were regarded within some of the world’s earliest civilizations. The vulture in Egyptian art is always distinct from depictions of eagles or falcons; the long, sagging neck and bald head, broad wings with prominent primary slotting, or finger-like spaces between the wingtip feathers, and a short tail plainly indicate a scavenging, carrion-eating bird, rather than the stocky, square-headed, thick-billed eagle. The tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of Kings abound with elaborate vulture imagery, representing the goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet, a deity of motherhood. In fact, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph meaning “mother” is a small Egyptian vulture.
Incredibly, in a culture as obsessed with preservation in death as ancient Egypt was, the vultures’ propensity for consuming carrion seems to have had very little to do with their role in Egyptian religion, as they are rarely associated with death. Other scavengers are, such as Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife, who no doubt grew from observations that jackals preyed on the dead. But despite subsisting on carcasses as well, vultures are always represented in Egyptian art as protectors of the living.
Among the ancient Greeks, the playwright Aeschylus, often called the father of tragedy, describes his view of vultures by contrasting them with other birds of prey.
“What bird is clean that preys on fellow bird?” he asks, referring to predatory eagles and implying that a bird consuming another bird is unclean.
This is elaborated in the Roman scholar Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, in which he describes Hercules as “always very joyful when a vulture appeared to him upon any action, and called them the most righteous of all flesh-eating creatures. For it is a creature the least hurtful of any, pernicious neither to corn, fruit-tree, nor cattle; it preys only upon carrion, and never kills or hurts any living thing.” Seeing that vultures were capable of eating meat even after it had been left rotting for days, the Greek physician Dioscorides recommended that consuming a vulture’s gut could cure indigestion. It was admiration for the vulture’s abilities, rather than disgust at its habits, that certainly fueled this conclusion.
According to Zoroastrian and modern Parsi tradition, the respected dead are left in dahkmas, or specially built towers where they are consumed by vultures. Termed a “sky burial,” Parsis believe that this is the most respectful way to honor those who have passed on, but for most people in the modern western world, this is beyond disrespect. To be left out for the crows and vultures to pick one’s bones is akin to inviting one’s ghost to haunt you. Even after a battle, armies rushed to bury their dead to prevent vultures and other scavengers from consuming them. The sudden decline in vulture populations in Asia in the 1990s and through the new millenium has been noticed by the Parsis that practice sky burials, and the effort to save the vultures there is not only of ecological concern, but cultural as well.
Almost certainly, the single largest factor that contributed to our modern fear and disgust with vultures was the Bubonic plague. During the mid-1300s, a strain of Yersinia pestis spread north and westwards across Europe, killing an estimated twenty-five to fifty percent the human population. The plague did the greatest harm in Mediterranean Europe, in Italy, Spain, and southern France, but it reached England within about two years of its introduction to a harbor in Genoa. No one at the time knew how the disease was spread, contracted, or cured. Family, friends, and neighbors died at such an alarming rate that only small, shallow, graves could be dug—shallow enough that vultures could gather to feast on the bodies. No doubt the very sight of such a thing—a daughter, or brother, or respected tradesman being literally eviscerated by a committee of vultures—was more than enough to make any European forget, if they ever knew, that vultures were once the gods of cleanliness, motherhood, and protection.
This animosity only grew, as vultures that were seen consuming the corpses of those who had succumbed to the disease did not themselves contract it. Mice, rats, pigs, dogs, cats, and oxen all were capable of contracting the Bubonic plague, but no one ever saw a vulture that was afflicted. People instead feared that vultures may have been spreading the plague in their droppings. Ironically, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that vultures may have been containing the disease, and if not stopping its spread, at least slowing it. In addition to stripping carcasses to the bone, vultures are capable of absorbing and destroying an incredible amount of toxins and bacteria. While other carcass scavengers, such as rats, hyenas, and feral dogs, serve as reservoirs for diseases as diverse as plague, cholera, and anthrax, vultures’ stomachs are so monstrously acidic that they essentially sterilize their meal, and in turn, their droppings contain no active disease. The continued decline in vulture populations in eastern Africa is worrisome not only for the sake of these species, but for human lives as well. A 1994 outbreak of Bubonic plague in India followed immediately after the steep crash in Indian vulture populations.
Our modern concept of vultures as a symbol of death, disease, cowardice, and filth probably doesn’t need elaboration. Too many have bought into this idea, ignoring the ancient philosophy about these respected creatures, including naturalists.
Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist and observer of animal behavior, who first described how young birds imprint on their parents, called vultures “extremely stupid creatures.” A child’s rhyme meant to teach the alphabet in the 1916 ABC Book of Birds by Carolyn S. Hodgman, offers this image for the letter ‘v’: “V is for vulture, a carrion crow. Ugly to look at, this scavenger low.” In just fourteen words, Hodgman destroys the potential for children who read her book to look at a vulture with anything but revulsion.
Very few animal symbols are so constant in the human psyche that they have yet to be altered by the passing of the centuries. If we are to let the vulture fall from the grace with which it was once regarded, however, we will be losing something much more immediately detrimental than a cultural symbol. We risk letting disease spread unchecked through regions of the world already lacking abundant medical care. We risk allowing offal and carcasses to pile up across the landscape, breeding rats and encouraging populations of feral dogs. We risk letting one of the most important nutrient cycling vessels disappear from the Earth, leaving us the dirty, thankless task that vultures already accomplish with relish. We are letting ourselves be weakened by the fear of our own mortality, the image of a vulture perched on a crooked old tree, shoulders hunched, bald head poised, awaiting our death.
When I think of vultures, I think of Ed. I think of the small black creature ambling through a field of dandelions on a warm, sunny morning. I think of him suddenly throwing out his wings to his sides, showing us that he is not merely black, but blazing with iridescence, more colorful than the meadow, brighter than the sky.
Anna Morris is a writer, environmental educator, and professional bird trainer. Her work, including book reviews, creative nonfiction, and peer-reviewed research has appeared in The Outside Story, NPR Book Reviews, and Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. She enjoys getting into deep, imaginative conversations with young learners, and she lives in Vermont with her husband, a cat, five pigeons, and a tortoise.
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