Unsavory harbingers of spring arriving on the wing
Tree swallows were gliding and darting, filling their bellies with bugs and the air with liquid twittering. But where were the turkey vultures?
Turkey vultures and tree swallows are harbingers of early spring in Southern Oregon. Swallow numbers slowly increased in February, and a few vultures have been seen. One may have wintered over. But they're usually here in force by now.
So you're probably thinking, OK, swallows ... but buzzards? If we have to have harbingers, can't we just go with the swallows?
Many TVs head for the Kern Valley in California's southern Sierra Nevada. The folks in Weldon, Calif., have a Turkey Vulture Festival in early autumn when thousands of the birds are concentrated there. Branson, Mo., and Hinckley, Ohio, have vulture festivals in springtime when the birds return.
As I would discover, "ours" were nearby. On the message board at roguevalleyaudubon.org, Harry Fuller reported seeing a small flock of TVs at North Mountain Park in Ashland that morning, heading north.
It was a good day to be a birder. As shafts of sunlight began to penetrate the morning fog, there were four wood ducks in a pond and a mob of cedar waxwings gorging on fat, red berries. Both birds are common enough but exciting for their immodest, almost cartoonish beauty.
As swallows swooped around the water on bug patrol, a strange shape appeared. Three dark humps. Either the Loch Ness Monster or an otter.
I called my friend John about the otter, and he got on his way. The otter hauled out and basked on a log near two large turtles, his sleek coat glistening in the sun. Five minutes before John arrived, he dove and disappeared.
John asked whether I'd seen any vultures. I told him he'd been reading my mind. We birded a while. There were red-tails, a harrier, a kestrel, various ducks, bluebirds, different sparrows and towhees, an Anna's hummingbird.
I had an eye on the sky for dark shapes soaring with wings in a dihedral, or slight V shape, and my mind turning over what I knew about vultures.
People have a thing about them. The Bible called them "an abomination," meaning they should not be eaten (an unneeded rule, you'd think). Even Darwin called them "disgusting." We shudder at them in a way we don't at carrion eaters such as coyotes, skunks, gulls, ravens, eagles, butterflies.
Vultures are ugly, they smell bad, and they have unsavory habits. If agitated, they hiss or throw up on intruders (don't hold that thought). In summer they defecate on their own legs to cool off.
They are planet Earth's cleanup crew, courtesy of a digestive system that has evolved to eat things other creatures can't handle. The name of their genus, Cathartes, has the same root as catharsis, or purification.
The turkey vulture and its southern cousin the black vulture have been blamed by misinformed people for spreading anthrax and killing newborn livestock. But anthrax cannot survive the trip through the vulture digestive system. And turkey vultures do not kill lambs or calves, although they may be found eating carcasses and thought guilty by association.
Turkey vultures are not related to Old World vultures, which are related to eagles and hawks. Their nearest relatives are the storks. The similarity of Old and New World vultures is a case of what biologists call convergent evolution. The similar niches they occupy have led to analogous structure in species not closely related.
The ancient Egyptians venerated vultures. The goddess Nekhbet was represented by one. Known as "Pharaoh's Chicken," the birds may have been the first animal protected by law.
Turkey vultures plan ahead. You find a carcass late in the day — unlike most birds you have an amazing sense of smell — and note its location. You roost with your pals at night and sleep in, heading out a couple hours after sunrise. You return to your sandbagged meal and drop in for breakfast. Life is good.
I suspect the problem we have with vultures is that they remind us of death. But our stay on this mortal coil is undeniably brief, and haven't philosophers and poets urged on us contemplation of our certain end?
Some Christians say they welcome death because for them it means going to a better place. Buddhists welcome death because they welcome everything. The ancient Romans had a saying, Memento mori, or remember your death. In the Middle Ages, skeletons with rotting flesh were a favorite theme of European artists, often with text warning viewers this was their fate, too.
The point of remembering death is to resolve to live life fully. Maybe if we honored vultures, I was thinking ...
"Turkey vultures," John said, snapping me out of it.
Near Lower Table Rock, a half-dozen TVs had appeared, riding the thermals and rocking on their wings. I did the buzzard dance and threw in a few war whoops.
"You know it doesn't take a lot to amuse you," John said, laughing, "when you get excited about a buzzard."
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.