Learning about Vultures with Kids


The author is an Associate Professor of English at Radford University in Radford, Va.

The vultures have come back. They swirl and mix above me as I ride my bike home on Sundell Drive, though not much sun reaches this shady street and there are no farmers in this dell. Only vultures. And deer. And skunks and raccoons and other animals unwelcome in town.

I announce their return when I enter the house at about 4:00. This is the hour of lead, to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, that lazy hour after school when the kids could be outside playing, exploring, but they are watching Arthur and snacking in front of the tube. It has been a rough week, but this pattern of come home and do nothing is an easy rut to fall into. “Who wants to come see the vultures?” I say, as if they were an automatic draw, like Santa Claus or the circus. Today there are no takers.

“No thanks,” says my five-year-old daughter, Elliot.

“Not right now,” adds her seven-year-old brother, Sam.

The temperature has climbed to 67 degrees, warmest January 13th on record, but don’t look for a causal connection between the warm day and the presence of the vultures, although they seem a portent of something. That they are back is notable because the city I live in has tried so hard to chase them away. There has been a roost in Radford, Virginia, at least since the 50s and 60s. About 1200 lived in the army arsenal property on the New River, one of the largest roosts in the East, but within the last five years some 200 of them started to move into town. Nobody knows why. Possibly, the vultures moved as a result of a timber harvest, though their roost was on a steep river bank—not a good place to cut down trees. Possibly, they were chased out of the arsenal in the same ways the city has tried.

When the whistles and firecrackers local residents used failed, the city purchased a $600 propane gas canon to noise them out. When that proved futile, they called in the feds. Last year the USDA division of Wildlife Services (formerly Animal Damage Control) hung four effigies in the woods where the vultures reside. They shone laser lights to flash them out and sprayed water to flush them out, but the vultures are back.

Michael Vest, the current Animal Control office in Radford, has a device called a “bird banger,” like a pistol for shooting blanks. It scatters them for a while, he tells me, “but they don’t care. They come back.” But Vest has a job to do, and when the residents make noise, so does he. “Personally, I don’t mind them,” says Vest. “They have a purpose. I think they’re beneficial.”

Several weeks later I give it another try with the kids, and we drive down to the spot where the vultures are known to roost. “I’ll be the leader” Sam volunteers and he chooses a deer path that avoids the brambles on the forest’s edge. Elliot follows up the wooded hill toward an opening in the tall white pines. We see deer scat and a groundhog hole and a few vultures that appear through the openings in the branches, but none have landed and we can’t get close enough to really see them. We know we are in the right spot, however, because of the frosting of white vulture poop sprayed over the pine needles, cones, and twigs. One tall pine on the edge of clearing is coated with a silvery gray sheen—their main stand. Near the spot, four large pines have been cut down, evidence of yet another attempt to eradicate the vultures. Sam whacks his way through the woods, clearing a corridor with a stick, jumping over fallen trees, as much up for an adventure as he is for studying a piece of an ecosystem.

Though Vest says they have a purpose, vultures fly with jaunty indifference, not the dignified grace of a bird of prey. Raptors hunt with intent, while vultures, members of the stork family, wait for accidents. Perhaps it’s their opportunism that so unnerves us about them. They glide more than fly in an unsteady path, criss-crossing over and under one another, picking up speed on the downward tilt and raising up, only to turn back into another draft. And unlike a bird of prey, they fly together, nature’s version of a street gang. More likely, it’s the role they play in nature’s cycle: they are “tearers” of flesh (from the Latin vulture and vellere, to tear), and you can have the pun. Their cousins bring babies, but they are the undertakers. Eagles will perform this same function, would readily choose carrion over livestock, yet no one is trying to blast them out of their sycamores.

I know of two times my little town has been mentioned by national media. We made it into Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek shortly after we tried to chase out the non-native, noisy starlings. Then, too, they fired shotguns and cannons. “BANG, went the guns; the birds settled down to sleep . . . . YIKE OUCH HELP went the [distress] recordings; snore went the birds.” And the August 2003 edition of The New York Times carried this headline: “Beady-eyed Stinkers Feast on Urban Fringes.”
The first line of the article reads, “The day the vultures arrived here was a moment made for Hitchcock.” But the vultures don’t really blacken the sky, nor do they attack people (nor are they sparrows, crows, or seagulls, featured in the film). And though vultures, the article goes on to say, “like being near people, with all their roadkill, livestock and landfills,” people don’t seem to like them near us. Last year, David Fields, the former Animal Control Officer, told the local paper that people were worried about pets, disease, and children. I’m here to say they are good for the children.

Unlike a TV, vultures can’t be turned on and off. Nature can’t be controlled so easily, as my city has learned. Though nature shows on TV sometimes motivate us to get out, they create false expectations. At the pond’s edge, kids want to see fish jumping, frogs croaking, and snakes slithering—instantly and right now—so nature is a let down. Our vultures won’t allows us to get close enough even to photograph them, but they provide opportunities to learn things kids won’t gather from TV, like exploring their immediate world, developing their natural curiosity, and discovering what beauty might be.

The Times article describes vultures as “beady-eyed,” but my children and I have never thought so. More likely the description comes from the cartoon image, the one with the long neck, and not an actual sighting. “Beady-eyed” also attributes a kind of malice to these creatures, an intent to do harm. What humans may see as malice from the ground are eyes finding breakfast from the sky.

Residents who wanted to get rid of the vultures seemed to be motivated by some combination of fear and revulsion, for the work that vultures do is not pretty. But there is no evidence that they transmit disease, nor is there any that they have harmed people or pets.

“They’re not built to do that,” says Keith Bildstein, zoologist and Director of Conservation Sciences at Hawkmountain Sanctuary. “Their beaks aren’t strong enough, nor are their claws.” And their digestive system, adapted to eating carrion, breaks down microbes. Rather than spread disease, Bildstein says, they likely reduce the transmission of it, since they clean away carrion. A book we check out from the library calls them “nature’s flying janitors.”

Kids learn all too readily the cute and cuddly aspects of natural creatures, but they need to learn the vultury side too. In a given day on PBS, kids can watch purple dinosaurs, yellow big birds, and a menagerie of lemurs, aardvarks, bears, and fish all talking, hugging, smiling and acting nice. Are any of them hungry? Are any of them scavenging for their next meal? Some of our favorite family movies are about animals with human feelings–Babe and Homeward Bound for example–which might be one way to learn to empathize with animals, but most of these movies minimize the disagreeable and present animal behavior in what cultural anthropologist Paul Shepard calls the “sentimental cloak” of the Walt Disney view. Vultures appear in the 1967 The Jungle Book, where they have a shaggy appearance and Beatle-like accents. Though they befriend the main character, Mowgli, vultures may have been the perfect vehicle to express the anxiety the culture at large felt about the fab four.

To the ancient Egyptians, vultures were deities, emblems of motherhood, giving life and then later taking it back, and to Mayans they also represented fertility. Persians accorded them royal status because of their size and the elegance with which they glide, and the Romans used them to represent military strength. For millennia the Parsis of India have relied on vultures to dispose of their dead, but, inexplicability, vulture populations have been in decline throughout southern and eastern Asia, forcing this community to reconsider this ancient practice. Tibetans still practice “sky burial” where human corpses are offered to the vultures or Dakinis (“sky dancer”), the equivalent of angels. Tibetans are encouraged to witness the ritual and to confront death openly, recognizing the impermanence of life.

But to many Americans, buzzards, as they are frequently called, are bottom feeders, “flying rats” according to the Times article. Metaphorically, a vulture is a rapacious person, or anything that eats away at us. In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Tamora appears as the figure of “Revenge: sent from the infernal kingdom/To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind/By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes.” The family name of New World vultures, Cathartidae, comes from the Greek kathartes, related to catharsis, for a cleanser or purifier, but most would clean them out rather than celebrate their cleansing properties.

Rachel Carson has said that children need to experience “the sense of wonder” before they begin to learn to identify species and name parts, that it is not half so “important to know as to feel.” An emotional response, especially to the beautiful, paves the way for wanting to know, but such a response is tricky with vultures, which are not conventionally beautiful, at least up close.

We admire the vultures when we look skyward on our walk to school, for they are nothing if not beautiful in flight. And we wonder at the way they cluster together, but this wonder is also increased by the knowledge we have learned. Each feature of the vulture is an adaptation, evolved to help it survive under the conditions in which it lives. The lack of feathers on their heads, for example, allows them to plunge into carcass cavities and come out clean. Without feathers to trap parasites, vultures soar disease-free. They stay at night in the cover of the white pines to prevent heat loss, and they will urinate on their legs to cool themselves down, a feature especially interesting to the younger set.

We learn to tell the black vultures apart from the turkey vultures, or for birders, TV. Black vultures fly flatter, without the dihedral or V-shaped wings, and they will flap more. The easiest way to tell them apart is that black vultures have a black hood, but they are also a bit smaller. In the air, turkey vultures have a gray shading across the bottom of their wing; on black vultures, this grey area is out near the end of the wings near the feathers that fan out like a hand. This “telling” birds apart is learning a language. To “tell” is etymologically related to “tally,” and so telling one bird from another is to re-count the signs that indicate its meaning.

We also come to know that turkey vultures can hunt by smell. Since black vultures cannot, they play follow-the-leader to fresh kill. After a meal, they are sometimes too heavy to fly, but if a predator comes around, they will vomit as a defense mechanism. Bob Sheehy, a Biology Professor at Radford University and avid birder, tells me “they won’t give up the calories easily. They last thing they want to do is waste a meal.” Bob once raised a two-week-old vulture, describes it as “the cutest guy,” “loved to have his head scratched,” but the vulture did throw up when they entered the room. “We cleaned it up like you clean up after a baby,” and they named him Puke.

Sam and Elliot have just gotten through the flu, and so they wonder at this defense mechanism. They also wonder at Bob’s Christmas present: one year for Christmas his wife Kate put a deer carcass on the roof to attract vultures for Bob to admire. Vultures are hard creatures for most of us to love, but Bob and Kate see them as a gift more than menace. We can learn to cherish the world we are given, or we can make a lot of futile noise in the forest.

And yet, we marvel too at what we don’t know about vultures. Why are they here, for example, in the ecotone between the neighborhood and the nearby countryside?
The fact that they live nearby may make them all the more interesting. And why do they cluster together? Scientists think they roost together to share information. The pine trees are the coffeehouse or tavern, gathering places where vultures catch up on the news. And while scientists seem to know what they eat, no one knows where they go each morning when they drift over our house and head southwest. They will return at night, as if punching a time clock. “They’re going off to work,” we joke, when we see them from our upstairs windows.

But these are human-centered comparisons, and in nature writing vultures are practically symbols of biocentric thinking. In “The Dead Man at Grandview Point,” Edward Abbey sees “V-shaped wings in the lonely sky.” He thinks of “the dead man under the juniper on the edge of the world, seeing him as the vulture would see him, far below from a great distance.” And he sees himself “through those cruel eyes,” looks down at himself “through the eyes of the bird,” soaring higher and higher, beyond the “curving margins of the great earth itself, and beyond earth that ultimate world of sun and stars whose bounds we cannot discover.” In “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers imagines being “part of him”: “What a sublime end to one’s body, what an enskyment.” Jeffers imagines his body living long after his bones have been picked clean. But how do kids learn to see from the perspective of animals when we are all, as poet Mary Oliver writes in “Vultures,” “Locked into / the blaze of our own bodies”—and minds.

Though the Radford vultures have a schedule, they don’t often fit ours. When I see them during a morning run, they have crossed the street from their night-time beds in the white pines eastward to the tall, tulip poplars. There, they gather together in the high limbs and turn their backs to the sun, warming their wings and stretching them out to dry, waiting for the breezes to begin. They are preening their feathers and spreading their wings just as my kids are rubbing their eyes and stretching their arms. And when the birds return, at dusk, we are winding down from the day, cooking dinner and getting homework out.

One day on my way home I spot a woman clutching her pink sweater-wearing poodle as the vultures fly overhead.

“What do you think of those vultures,” I say, after stopping my bike.

“I don’t know what to think of them,” says the woman, who will only identify herself as Mrs. B. (“I’m terribly shy”). “I don’t have their minds.”

“Should we get rid of them?” I ask, expecting to get a good vulture-hating quote out of the poodle owner.

“I’m animal lover, animals of all kinds, so I think we should let them be.”

We looked up at several flying overhead, their wings spread wide above us. Cormac McCarthy says they look like “bits of ash in an updraft.” For Mary Oliver, they are
“large lazy butterflies.” When they churn in air they are called a kettle, and if there was music for their flight it would be Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” I say they look beautiful. She says “Yeah, but not up close.” She had one on the porch once, clutching her chair (“the mark is still there”) and they saw each other face to face: “He had the most expressive look. Full of such expression. As if to say, well, here I am.”

When we came back from our first trip to the vulture roost, Sam had forgotten the day’s date with PBS Kids and stayed outside, exploring the backyard, a different kind of TV floating high above him. But we made one more attempt to get close. One night after homework and before bed Sam and I slipped out to try to see them. By now Elliot had grown tired of vulture talk, so she stayed home. “Those crazy birds have a naked head.”

I turned off the car and lights and coasted to a parking spot. We closed the car doors quietly and heard only the crunch of our boots in the March snow. We looked up and saw a large, solitary form in a leafless tree, but the beam on our flashlight couldn’t reach that high.

Sam thinks it’s an owl, so I hoot. Nothing moves. Beyond the lace of pine needles and clouds drifting across the night sky, beyond the layers that obscure our vision, are stars. We try to get closer to the form, almost underneath, but I step on a stick, break it, and suddenly the trees come alive. The vultures flutter and scatter off into the night, a loud crashing of wings and branches. We duck and cover our heads and flee the woods.

“That gave me the creeps,” says Sam, and we head home exhilarated by our contact with vultures but sorry to have upset them. We are content to leave the vultures alone, for now, and study them from afar, as vital pieces to mysteries that soar above us. Soon they will disperse to caves and wooded mountaintops to nest. For now, though we cannot see them, it is enough to know they exist.

Black vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. They can only be killed through a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Services. Among groups are working to protect vultures include the American Bird Conservancy, the Carolina Raptor Center, and the National Audubon Society.

Send stores about sharing nature with kids to editor@appvoice.org to be posted on our web site.

AV Mountain border tan1

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment