Vindicating Vulture: A Storyteller’s Plea
I was captivated years ago by the grace of the vulture in flight. To me it was a sky meditation. Vulture is the perfect soaring machine. There is no denying it is a little on the homely side with its bare head and neck. The fact that the skin is red doesn’t help either. I suppose the last straw and to be expected is the fact it feeds on carrion, turning most people off. But oh, when vulture unfurls those wings with the silver lining, all six-feet of wing, it is their saving grace. As a storyteller, I take on the task of vindicating the vulture by telling the true story to dispel some of the ugly myths. Vulture has been soaring over Mexico for millenniums. Let me introduce this most amazing creature and a little of its history.
Just imagine if the vulture did not exist. In Baja we have long open stretches of desert. There is no routine clean up by “Caltrans,” so the vulture becomes the nearest thing to a road crew that we have. And it is very good at what it does. Unashamed of its task, it picks animal remains clean which would otherwise be a nasty site. It has a unique digestive system, as you can imagine, which has a resistance to botulism thousands of times higher than humans, because it contains certain chemicals that kill the virulent bacteria in the carcasses. Debunking another myth, vultures prefer to eat fairly fresh meat and will turn up their ugly little noses if the kill has been out in the sun too long. They fancy the meat of animals that eat grass and vegetables and do not care for carnivores. And they do not screech when circling over something about to die. This is a misnomer created by Hollywood westerns. In fact, it is mute and only makes a hissing sound in warning. It is also incorrect to call it a “buzzard.” Buzzards are actually of the hawk family.
To further vindicate this much maligned bird, here are some facts about the Turkey Vulture you probably never knew you wanted to know. The Turkey Vulture is actually related to the Egyptian Ibis. Its scientific name is Cathartes aura, golden purifier. It is known as zopilote in Spanish. Vultures find food with both their keen sense of smell and excellent eyesight. Vulture poop is actually a sanitizer. Their uric acid is so strong it kills bacteria. This is good for desert hikers to know. However, there are no instructions regarding how to collect the poop from an inconvenienced six pound bird hissing at you.
There is no more graceful bird in the sky as it soars catching the thermals. Vultures soar for hours without flapping. They will take flight when the air is warmed, frequently circling and gaining altitude on pockets of rising warm air. When they reach the top of the thermal, they glide across the sky at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, gradually losing altitude all the while, until they catch another thermal that takes them skyward again. Circling vultures do not necessarily indicate the presence of a dead animal. In the early mornings vultures can be seen opening up their 6-foot wing span to warm themselves and dry their feathers. Their inner wing feathers are a light silver color and when the sunlight catches them they shine like gold.
Man and vulture have been linked for eons of time and it has royal ancestors. La Brea Tar Pits in Alta California has carbon dating of a 38,000 year old vulture trapped in the sticky goo. Vulture was present at the dawn of the Maya, seven hundred years before Christ. Vulture was found in an ancient royal Maya burial ground in Guatemala. Among the findings were unique beads made of the precious Olmec blue jadeite with a center bob of a carved vulture’s head. A 35,000 year-old vulture-bone flute was discovered in a European cave and is likely the world's oldest recognizable musical instrument. The artifact suggests music may have been one advantage our ancestors had over their cousins, the now-extinct Neanderthals.
Seeing a vulture in graceful flight, don’t forget that Egypt considered this bird to be a goddess. Mut (Moot) was the mother goddess of Thebes. The ancient Egyptians considered the vulture to be a protecting and nurturing mother (which is actually their true nature), and so their word for mother was also the word for a vulture, "Mwt". She was often shown wearing the double crown of Egypt or the vulture headdress. The Golden Purifier’s morning ritual looks like a prayer to the Sun God. This is certainly one of the most striking sights, if you are up early enough to witness it.
So, as a spokesperson on behalf of the vulture, remember this. If you should see the vulture feeding in the middle of the road, please brake! It is no easy task to get its six-pounds off the ground and into flight. It takes a little time hopping and with great flaps of its wings for lift off. In this way we are assured that the desert cleanup crew remains fit to continue the work no one else would want to do.