When I imagine talking animals (which is a more prudent beginning that to write “When animals speak to me….”), I hear vultures’ voices cracking like an old man’s, tinder dry and throaty, as if they were all doing imitations of Don Vito Corleone in his final meeting with Michael: “I drink more wine than I used to.” They have not aged well, especially in close ups — a pinkish-red, naked head; big, hairless, all seeing eyes; a bone-white ripping bill; feathers cascading like a cloak worn over hunched shoulders. They look like old men who have forgotten nothing and whose capacity for self-preservation has grown vast.
A Turkey Vulture
I like them.
They have flown above the planet for 60 million years and their life expectancy can stretch to 50 years. Black Vultures “wet their legs with urine” when they want to cool off (957).* Large groups, called ‘wakes’ when roosting, will often open their wings in a ‘horaltic’ pose to lower their body temperature. No one seems to know what ‘horaltic’ means, but it sounds vaguely god-like and Egyptian to my ear and thus, along with the wonderful Irish word ‘wake’, sets up other connotations and images whose breadth appeals to my imagination.
They eat carrion. They keep the natural world clean. If you are nursing back to health one who might have dropped into your yard or onto your sidewalk (or fell off your roof), feed them “large pieces of fresh meat — dead rabbits, chickens or carcasses of traffic-killed animals picked up on the highway (957).”* They have prodigious appetites. One scientist kept “a young turkey vulture that swallowed in a single meal a … milk snake, 3 and ½ feet long and digested it in 1 and ½ hours (957).”* On the ground, they hop clumsily, but that too endears them to me.
Large flocks of both Turkey and Black Vultures make Chester County their home. They are a reminder that we still have natural lands lonely enough to support them. In that respect their presence is a kind of optimistic signal — the insatiable avarice of developers has not yet prevailed.
Vulture Soaring by Andrew Wyeth
They have chosen two neighbor’s homes to rest upon, five or seven at a shot, roofs with clear views over pasture. On Tuesday morning I watched a ‘kettle’ of at least twelve round in vast circle within circle rotations. In the winter they home in low over the ridge line above the Park, and their shadows flock over the meadow like B-17’s coming in to land.
*The Audubon Society Encyclopedia Of North American Birds by John Terres
Pope Innocent X by Velasquez (tell me that he doesn’t remind you of a vulture — oh that icy, attentive gaze!)