The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing unusual about seeing vultures in Texas, but a pair of turkey vultures taking the sun on a gently disintegrating windmill seemed worth the stop.

By the time I’d stepped out of the car, one of the birds already was giving me the side-eye. The reason for his attention was obvious; if I were going to expire on the side of the road, he didn’t want to miss an easy meal.

His cautious but coolly calculating expression amused me immensely. There on the spot, I composed a bit of verse for him:

The vulture high atop his tree
will look and look  – what does he see?
Of course he’d like to eat for free;
I hope he doesn’t relish me!

Occasionally a website or tabloid will try to pull in readers with an attack-vulture story, but vultures aren’t designed to attack human beings. Several species, including the turkey vulture, will eat small, live prey from time to time, but they’ve evolved to feed primarily on carrion, and help to keep the environment clean by ridding it of dead animals. 

Still, their habits elicit a certain revulsion, and occasionally an almost superstitious reaction. “Don’t stop walking,” an old Texas rancher once said to me. “You don’t want to tempt them.”

 

In a poem he titled “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) imagines what it would be like to stop walking, and tempt such a bird.

Jeffers promoted a philosophy he called “inhumanism” — a view of things in which nature “not only serves as a backdrop for verse,  but animals and natural objects frequently are compared to man, with man shown to be the inferior.” It’s a perspective that influenced other California poets, such as Gary Snyder, and although the “merging with nature” that Jeffers imagines here is less sentimental and far more graphic than that portrayed in many poems, it certainly is memorable. I suspect my vultures would like it.

 

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
narrowing.
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward, staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how
beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
sea-light
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

173 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

  1. On our previous property, in Karnes County, we used to have them roost regularly on our electric pole. One even got electrocuted there. Here in Frederickburg, despite having an electric pole in the garden, too, we don’t have them roosting. But of course, they’re always around. When I do my bicycling and see them circling above me, I’m confident that, should I end up as roadkill, I would not lie there long. :D
    Great picture. I like it.
    Have a great week,
    Pit

    1. I can’t help but be curious about their choice of perches. There’s a particular pair of power poles out in the country around Kerrville where there always are at least a half dozen birds hanging out, and sometimes more. There are plenty of other poles around, but they’ve chosen that pair. for whatever birdy reason, and there they sit.

      I have learned to look more closely at groups of them alongside the road; sometimes there are caracaras feeding with them. Since the caracara will take live prey, it may be that they kill, and then the vultures arrive.

      In any case, we’ll certainly hope that you don’t end up as roadkill, no matter how happy it would make the vultures!

  2. Great post and I love Jeffers’ poem, Linda. I’ve always felt that the sky burials of some cultures where the body of the deceased is left on a high platform where it could be devoured by buzzards and other creatures would be a wonderful afterdeath, much in the way Jeffers describes it.

    1. Jeffers seems to me to be a sort of poetic equivalent to Ivan Albright: odd, out of step, but compelling. Mary Oliver has written more directly about the kind of ritual you mention. You can see her poem here.. I’m a great fan of Oliver, but I thought Jeffers’s poem was more interesting, and more unpredictable.

  3. Every year, buzzards from Ohio migrate to South Florida where they all seem to want to roost on my property at night – hundreds of them. They befoul the woods and eat the asphalt shingles on the roof of my house. There is only one way to make them move on: kill one and put it on the roof. Vultures are very intelligent and social birds and when they see one of their own dead, they leave. They do not eat their own dead. Also, black vultures and turkey vultures work together – one species has superb eyesight and the other has superb smell. I don’t know which is which. But they do a good job. Jeffers is wrong about vultures eating freshly dead animals, though. It takes a few days before the scent and decomposition is sufficiently strong and advanced for vultures to start working on a carcass.

    1. When I was exploring the differences between black and turkey vultures, I read that black vultures find their prey by sight, and the turkey vultures by smell. I also found a note that black vultures are the more aggressive species, and sometimes will drive turkey vultures away from a meal.

      I had no idea vultures would eat shingles, but sure enough: there are articles galore on the web about how to prevent their damage. I found several sites that recommend “vulture decoys” — artificial birds meant to mimic a dead one and send the live birds in search of a better area. I suspect those decoys work about as well as the artificial owls used around here to keep other birds off boats: in short, they don’t. It makes sense that your method would be more effective.

      It’s interesting that I didn’t read the poem as suggesting the vultures moved in immediately. In scientific terms, you’re exactly right, but as a poet, it seems Jeffers was more concerned with the final outcome than with the process that led to it.

    1. I just realized something amusing, Nia. You have different species of vultures in your country, but in a sense, they all are “Turkey” vultures! I found these images of European vultures; they’re rather different, and quite beautiful. There’s an article here about biologists in Turkey tracking Egyptian vultures.

  4. Not so long ago we didn’t really have turkey vultures here but they are common now. A group of about 20 hangs out across from the beach of our little lake in town. I love to watch them circle, wobbling about in the air. Like you, I’ve chuckled to find myself become of interest as I loiter by the water.

    1. Your mention of that “wobble” confirms something I read: that turkey vultures soar with their wings in a shallow “V” shape, and often teeter from side-to-side. On the other hand, black vultures hold their wings level while soaring, and don’t wobble. Either Audubon or another site noted that those flight differences help to make identification possible even when they’re not close enough to see other details. They’re magnificent soarers, no question, and great fun to watch.

    1. Those are great photos from Coralville. I enjoyed seeing the milkweed pods, too. That’s the kind I remember from growing up there: big, fat pods with a rough exterior.

      We see a lot of thermal and dynamic soaring here during the raptor migrations. The “kettles” that the birds form aren’t as large as in other places, but they’re amazing to see. When I stayed at the Presidio in Goliad, there were hundreds of vultures that roosted in the trees along the river. Watching them take off and swirl into the sky was wonderful. You’re right about that fine control of their wing-tips, too. Until I started photographing birds, I’d not been aware of it. Now, it’s easy to see even without a camera.

  5. The return of the vultures is always highly anticipated here in Big Bend. It’s big news around town when the first birds arrive each spring. Without them our roadways and pastures would be littered with dead, rotting, stinking carcasses, often spreading diseases. I’ve watched a flock of them reduce a full sized elk carcass to hide and bones in three days. The idea of a vulture “attacking” anything is preposterous. They were the inspiration for early would-be aviators designing strap-on wings in their unsuccessful attempts to fly, because of their effortless gliding on the air currents. We owe much to these oft-maligned friends of mankind.

    1. Until I read this PBS article, I had no idea that thermal and dynamic soaring as scientific concepts were so recent. Of course, even Icarus had the concept down; it was his judgment that was a little lacking.

      I didn’t realize that vultures are migratory in your area. I’m so accustomed to seeing them year-round, it never occurred to me there would be parts of Texas without them during the winter. It’s just one more reminder of our state’s size and diversity. This article about their presence in Big Bend is filled with information I didn’t know, although you surely do. They may not be as pretty as your wildflowers, but they’re surely as interesting.

      Do they arrive in large groups? During the hawk migrations, there are so many that they easily show up on radar; the ever-helpful NWS will post screen shots for those who’ve missed seeing them move through.

    1. Thank you, Jet. Until this post set me exploring, I didn’t realize how many species exist around the world, or how many are under threat of extinction.

      Researchers here currently are trying to develop a poison that will help to control feral hogs that are wreaking havoc through the state. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that other animals taking the bait isn’t the only possible problem. Vultures eating the carcasses of poisoned hogs could be one of those unintended consequences of the project. That surely is being considered, but I’m going to find out.

  6. Can’t identify with the Robinson Jeffers poem…it’s a strange sort of backward romanticism… instead of ‘we are what we eat’ which I heard a number of times when I was drinking in the wisdom of the far west, he seems to think we are what has eaten us… I remember his name, but don’t remember his poetry… maybe I should have another look. But this poem doesn’t especially tempt me.

    1. That’s such a perfect description: “backward romanticism.” You’ve also brought to mind a common Texas colloquialism. People will say that someone is “eaten up” with something: cancer, jealousy, drugs — whatever. It’s always negative, and never positive. In rural areas, you’ll hear it expressed a little less formally, as in, “He’s eat up with the whiskey.”

      I suppose the most formal form of the phrase would be “to be consumed by” something — passion, guilt, envy — and I certainly can remember both hearing and speaking the phrase, “What’s eating you?” Perhaps all of the metaphors are powerful precisely because of the literal experience that underlies them.

      That said, Jeffers is one I remembered only vaguely, and when I looked at some of his other poems, I wasn’t tempted to explore further. They aren’t any more appealing to me than his philosophy. Still, there was something about the poem that captured the vulture for me in a way others didn’t.

  7. The second line in your quatrain reminded me immediately of “David and Lisa,” which I saw on Turner Classic Movies the other night for the first time in half a century:

    “David, David, look at me. Who do you see? Who do you see?”

    It’s good that the bird didn’t relish you, with or without relish.

    1. I’d forgotten that movie. I don’t think I’ve seen it, but the title was familiar, and so was the story line.

      Now that I think of it, if that vulture had relished me, I’d have been in a pickle.

  8. They are not beautiful birds except when they are soaring. And their ultimate purpose and usefulness cannot be denied. I do wonder sometimes when lying in the sun come spring, “Does he think I am dead?”

    1. They do soar beautifully. As for beauty, eye of the beholder, and all that. The very fact that little vultures keep appearing is proof positive that they find each other attractive, and that’s what counts — at least, for the vultures. Just turn over now and then!

    1. They are fascinating. It’s easy to admire the pretty birds, with their bright colors and musical calls, but the vulture rewards our attention, too. How such an ungainly creature can be so graceful in flight is amazing — but so it is.One day, I’ll photograph one in flight. On this day, they all were high, high in the sky.

    1. “Scruffy” is a word that comes to mind when I see them: at least, when they’re perched. Their tail feathers always look like they could use a good combing. But in flight, they’re such fun to watch, and, as you say, they’re quite good at tidying things up for Mother Nature. Someone has to do the dishes!

  9. That is a wonderful poem. I have to agree with him.

    I had an experience with a turkey vulture in a semi-remote area of northern WI once. The bird was nearly as tall as I am (5 feet) and was following me around like a puppy. I was…terrified and confused to say the least. Bergman films kept racing through my mind: Is my death nearby and this is the clean-up crew?

    I made my way back home only to find the bird still on my trail, now sitting on the porch. I made a call to a local wildlife authority and the word was the wildlife rehab person let this creature go free too soon. All the poor thing wanted was human affection and maybe a sandwich…

    1. Martha, I laughed aloud at that last sentence. Sympathy for vultures doesn’t come naturally, I suppose, but I felt a sudden rush of sympathy for that sandwich-seeking bird. I’ve known a couple of bird rehabbers, and I know a good release depends on so many factors, but I’ve never thought about a bird being released too early. It makes sense that it could happen — your experience proves it.

      I can’t stop laughing. I can see you and the vulture on the porch, waiting for the bird’s ride back to wherever. Clearly, there’s a Simon-style cartoon in there somewhere.

      1. I need to send you photos of the bird. I hope I can find some. I still remember the sound of his/her talons on the blacktop drive.

        How can you not admire and sympathize with a vulture? If they did not clean up the mess we humans make! Ugh! And yet they get no respect and all you guys call them “ugly”. Poor vultures! Say Thank You to a Vulture Today! :^D

  10. Outstanding post. The title is a grabber, evocative photo, and I had no idea someone would create a poem about these creatures. I’m not philosophical enough to relish the idea of this sublime enskyment, although I love the language of it.

    We have these guys in NY, too, sometimes a big flock, and from a distance, very graceful-looking as they float around up there in circles. Up close, not so much.
    One flapped right past our kitchen window this fall, swooped down to the driveway, don’t know what, or who, attracted him, but kind of startling. When they pull out of a dive and flap around, they look like their feathers were attached kind of loosely, by unskilled labor.

    1. You’d be surprised how many vulture poems there are. Even Mary Oliver has written one. Unlike Jeffers, who titled his “Vulture,” she used the title “Vultures.” I vacillated between them, but “enskyment” won me over in the end. If I ever find a black vulture, maybe I’ll use Oliver’s poem.

      We have the literati; I wonder if Jeffers and Oliver are part of the vulturati?

      I found this great article about the movement of the black vultures into New York state. It has some great photos from the Mohonk Preserve, just west of Poughkeepsie, where there’s a big nesting colony. With 75 miles of hiking trails, it would be a fun place to visit.

      1. The vulturati have generated quite a buzz-ard.
        Have you seen pictures of the Mohonk Mountain House? Next time I’m roughing it in the Catskills, and have a couple of $1000 kicking around, that’s where I’ll camp out.

        1. I’ve seen photos of the Mohonk Mountain House now. Good grief. By the time I saw the amenities include farm-to-table food, 420 count sheets and an in-room safe…. Well, heck. When I come, I’ll just stay in a cottage. Why waste the opportunity? It’s a gorgeous place, no question about that. I know someone who’s been to New Paltz, but I can’t remember who it is. Whether they stayed here or not, it looks like a lovely area to visit.

  11. Another ‘on the spot’ poem, Linda. :)

    Two buzzards roosting, waiting for wind,
    Spotted me with thoughts to rend,
    If I’d only expire upon the spot,
    They’d toss me into their cooking pot!

    –Curt

    1. Great addition, Curt. There’s a circular structure next to the windmill that might have been a covered tank, or perhaps storage for grain. In any event, it’s made of metal, with a metal roof. At least in the summer, it would make a great place to grill our remains!

    1. Most vultures do want a return on their investment, now that I think about it. Whether they get one is another question. Sometimes, a little Jeffers-style resistance is in order. I do love his imaginary reply to the vulture:

      “I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
      here.
      These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’”

      In short, there come times when the best reply to a buzzard is, “Buzz off.”

  12. Love your on-the-fly poem. You have also just proven what I never thought possible…that an essay about turkey vultures could make me laugh: “Don’t stop walking….” Hilarious and probably with a grain of truth in your area of the country.

    1. I’m glad it tickled you, Jean. Good humor’s in short supply these days; if a memory makes me laugh, I figure it’s worth passing on. If you really want a humorous story from your part of the country, look at Martha’s story, about five comments up. I laughed out loud when I read that one, and ended up feeling positively sympathetic to her vulture.

  13. Everytime I see buzzards soaring or waiting, I remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail: ‘I’m not dead yet!” Love the poem, just don’t tempt them. :)

    1. I’d forgotten that scene — what a classic. Actually, I’ve made use of that line myself, if only metaphorically. :-)

      On the same afternoon, I managed a shot of this little gem. I almost deleted it — I kept thinking, “Why do I have so many photos of just bushes?” But there it is. Do you think it might be a juvenile yellow rumped warbler?

      1. Yes! It is a butter butt! Whether juvenile or not, I couldn’t say, but your identification is spot on. I’ve only seen one, once in my garden this winter, very disappointing. But I’m glad you got to see one, they’re so cute!

        1. I should never attempt replying, or any kind of writing, on my phone–always a mistake. That said, I’m missing seeing the yellow rumps this year. Hope one or more show up. I had a pair of Ruby-crown Kinglets, but haven’t seen either in a week or so. There is that Cooper’s Hawk around…

          1. I still have two unidentified little birds to figure out. I was luckier with them, as they were willing to perch, and eventually I’ll make at stab at an ID. My admiration for your bird photography has grown, that’s for sure. Those tiny little things are active and fast — even keeping an eye on them without a camera is quite a trick.

            1. Awe, thanks Linda. I get a few good shots when the birds cooperate, but as you stated, it’s hard when they’re doing their bird thing–flit, flit, hop, hop, wing away!

  14. Linda, your trips to the refuge provide you with such inspiration. I love the shot.

    A few years back I was leaving the Nash, I spotted a bunch of vultures and a hawk sharing a deer carcass on the side of the road. I managed to park across the road and watch as the birds returned and fed for awhile. The pictures I got from that “sitting” were amazing.

    And every winter, when the winds are just right, I’ll sit in the cool sun and watch dozens of vultures spiral out of sight in the open sky… higher and higher until they are lost in the height.

    1. It’s always fun to have you stop by, Gary, because you “know the territory.” I suspect you may have passed that windmill and tank a few times yourself. And you’re certainly right that a little sitting around can be useful. After a while, we become just part of the scenery, and can see some wonderful sights.

      Have you ever gone over to Smith Point for the fall migration, or to High Island for the “fall out” in the spring? I’ve missed the rookeries in past years, but this year I’m going to try to visit one or two.

      1. I’ve made it to both locations, just not at the opportune time. But I can imagine what they must be like as we had a “fall out” at my place one spring with hundreds of buntings, tanagers, and orioles. The nearest spring I’ve ever had, and I didn’t even have to leave my backyard.

        1. That’s part of the fun. Wildflowers that have bloomed in a certain spot for years disappear, while others show up. Birds that we chase all over creation suddenly drop out of the sky while we’re on our second cup. The lesson’s clear: we need to keep our eyes open, because there is no predicting what’s coming next.

  15. I’ve never been a fan of vultures, Linda, but you make them positively fascinating. To think that one might be eyeing you and hearing his stomach growling!!

    1. I suspect there might be times when they do get hungry, Debbie. Since they don’t hunt prey like hawks or other raptors, and have to wait for some unfortunate creature to get served up, they probably spend a good bit of time just sitting around and waiting for the dinner bell.

      In a way, they remind me of some of the water creatures, like penguins: awkward on land but beautifully adapted to their environment. The waddling penguins turn graceful in the water, and the vultures become equally graceful in the air. And the vultures are easier to watch.

  16. Thank you Linda for your nice post about the Turkey Vulture. Although these birds are most likely to lose a beauty contest, they are by far winners when it comes to cleaning the Environment and keeping balance on the recycling in Nature. At the end, they are really champions. :)

    1. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve paid much close attention to nature, but one thing is sure: whether it’s spiders, or caterpillars, or bees, or birds like the vulture, they all become more interesting — and even more beautiful — as I get to know them.

      Besides, if the vultures were as gorgeous as the egrets or herons, we might have wiped them out for their feathers. That would have been more than unfortunate. Better they keep a low profile, and just keep doing their thing!

  17. In areas of Tibet and Nepal, they practice “sky burials” — the body of the deceased is taken to a tall tower and left there for the vultures. I find it sad that people have been taught to be so jealous of the bodies they have vacated in death that they seal them away and sequester them in vaults against some end-times trumpet. I was once part of a star; I would like the chance to be other things.

    1. I finally remember the Zoroastrians, and found this fascinating article about sky burials. I had no idea that even some Native American tribes engaged in a variation of the practice. The reasons vary widely — from permafrost to long-held cultural beliefs — but it certainly does help to put Jeffers’s poem into context.

      Interestingly, there’s a mention in the article of a culture that’s turned to cementing their dead away as a way to protect the living. When it comes ot burial practices, clearly one size doesn’t fit all.

  18. One day a young lady called Lin,
    Went out in her car for a spin.
    She stopped by a post
    Where a vulture played host, on a post,
    To Lin for his dinner-din-din.

    1. There’s nothing better than inspiring someone else to begin versifying. This one reminds me of the ages-old cartoon of cannibals with the explorer/missionary in their cooking pot. The potted-up one, of course, is saying, “When you invited me for dinner, this isn’t what I had in mind.”

    1. Actually, I suspect they’d savor me on the ground, since their feet aren’t equipped with the kind of claws or talons that allow raptors to carry off prey. I know: details, details.

  19. From within the crop of a bird,
    Lin’s plaintive voice is heard
    “Mr Vulture, take off and soar high,
    I’d like a view from the sky –
    That really would be the last word.”

    1. Now you’ve gotten me in the mood. How about this (with apologies to Wm. Blake)?

      Vulture, Vulture, flying high
      in the caverns of the sky;
      what amused, yet helpful guy
      has given you that useful eye?

        1. It’s my attempt to parody the first lines of Blake’s poem called The Tyger. I know you know it, but it’s not necessarily the first thing that would have come to mind.

          Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
          In the forests of the night;
          What immortal hand or eye,
          Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

          1. Ah! Very good.
            Nothing comes to mind immediately these days: or perhaps in never did.
            Wm Blake wasn’t a much of a spelle, was he? Or a rimer, for that matter.

            Someone tell me how to spell rime.
            I get it wrong all the time.
            Then again I have trouble with tigger,
            It just makes everyone snigger.
            Do you think AA Milne is sublime?

            Sometimes there’s an “h” or there uaint.
            What a sorry picture I puaint!
            My psycology needs a good shrink …
            Newmonia’s “p” ‘s on the brink.
            But The House at Pooh Corner is qaint.

            1. Wonderful! I haven’t come across “rime” since the Ancient Mariner was lurking about.

              I came across a fascinating article about what it’s like to hear Shakespeare as it would have been spoken back in his day. You can find it here. In the video, at 6.00, there’s a fascinating discussion of Sonnet 116, where the old pronunciation makes sense of something that always grated on my ear: the obvious non-rhyme of “proved” and “loved.”

            2. I wonder what accent Shakespeare wrote in. After all, how you say “u” divides north and south England today. Do you think it’s because of Shakespeare’s Stratford origins? That is, if he really was the author of Shakespeare.

              See also sonnets 25 and 117. Are there any others?

              Experts say South African and Australian accents come from cockney (not to be confused with east London pronunciation).

              “Rhoticity” – a useful word I have learned from your link – is common across southern England and East Anglia today. In my youth, you only had to go only 15 miles south of here for it suddenly to appear. Who knows – maybe it crossed the Atlantic with the Pilgrim Fathers?

              I wonder if the curious rhyme, spread – buried in sonnet 25 has to do with the pronunciation of “r”. This might discount the Stratford idea. Or perhaps they have rhoticity in Stratford.

              Too many questions, not enough answers! Our first oven had a rotisserie, but I don’t think that helps.

            3. I enjoyed the roticity/rotisserie connection, particularly since people who either do or don’t pronounce their “r”s often think those who do the opposite are skewering the language.

  20. I really loved your poem. The vultures are a favorite of mine. Long ago I had a close encounter with one – the message (to me) was, “Glide and soar, and leave your carcass of troubles to me”.

    I have always hoped to photograph vultures feeding on a carcass, but no luck so far. We have both the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture here and I tend to see them all year long. It’s not uncommon to see huge numbers of them catching the thermals over the woodlands and pecan orchard just west of here. In late summer I often find a flock of thirty or more, roosting in an old pecan tree just below our slope off the back yard. Watching them circle in to land is entertaining.

    For the last two summers, a pair roosts on a dead snag not far back in our woods. I never see any young or a nest but I know there has to be one nearby. I have tried to photograph these two but with no luck, however I have managed to observe them with the binoculars. Those magnificent wings hang down a good bit, like giant capes draped over their bodies. And the wingspans can be long – more than six feet sometimes. I find the vultures beautiful, and hope to be able to spend more time observing them.

    1. That phrase, “carcass of troubles,” is a good one. It’s always good when our troubles get eaten away, instead of them eating away at us.

      I’m still not certain I’ve come across black vultures. I may have seen them in the sky, since I’ve sometimes noticed different patterns on the underside of wings and assumed it was an adult/juvenile or male/female difference. Now I think it might have been different species.

      As often as you see the birds in your area, I’m surprised you haven’t been able to catch them feeding: at least, with your camera. I hope this will be the year that you do. When I’ve found turkey vultures on the ground, they seem to be more skittish than when they’re perched. The few times I’ve tried to photograph them, they either hop and scatter, or fly away.

      When I was looking through some photos, I found one of vulture babies, and had to smile. Like most babies, they’re cute as can be: at least, after they start getting some down and feathers.

      Here’s my black vulture fact of the day for you. You may already know this, but I was fascinated to learn that the black vultures will cool off by peeing on their own legs. That still makes me laugh. It seems like such a vulture-y thing to do.

      1. Well, I did not know that tidbit. I find that fascinating. I have only seen the black vultures a few times. We see Turkey vultures mostly. I really thought I would have some great photographs when we had a coyote carcass free for the nibbling and not one vulture touched it! For weeks I waited to photograph vultures eating away, but the coyote body rotted in the sun over the months. More than a year later only a few bones remain and some hide. I suppose small mammals carried off pieces and hunks in the night. I never did see a vulture, and the carcass was in plain view on the dike of the old river channel. What a mystery, especially when almost daily in the warmer months, we see vultures circling the pecan orchard and woodlands all of the way to the river.

        1. As the old saying has it, ask and ye shall receive. I was out and about a bit yesterday, and came across a pair of black vultures in a tree. There’s no question in my mind they were a mated pair, and I was able to get a few decent photos.

          I spent about a half hour watching them, and it was most interesting. They spent most of the time preening or napping, but when I saw them suddenly begin watching the sky, I turned to see what might have attracted their attention. Sure enough, there were turkey vultures circling. I’d read that they often follow turkey vultures, whose sense of smell often allows them to find a caracass first. Sure enough, they both stood up, watched for a minute or two, and then took off after the other vultures. I hope there was food enough for them all! I want to post the second of my love-in-a-mist photos on Lagniappe first, but then I’ll show the vultures. They do look like they’re wearing white socks.

  21. Thanks for introducing me to Robinson Jeffers, I love his style and the term “inhumanism”. Both Black and Turkey Vultures are found in Florida, and they tend to fly in large groups and not flap their wings at all – they ride thermals and generally glide in large circles without flapping their wings. They are brown/black and patternless. They prefer perching on trees rather than poles. These are the differences to keep in mind. What Jim R. says is fascinating to learn because of the physics involved in their flight.

    1. The more times I read the poem, the more I appreciate it. Jeffers ended up in California, and was an influence on other poets with environmental concerns, like Gary Snyder. It doesn’t surprise me that you enjoyed it.

      What you said about your vultures preferring trees intrigued me, since I almost always see them on poles or windmills. Of course, along much of our coastal plain, the poles are taller than the trees, and there’s little doubt that the birds are able to see more from atop them.

      Do you often see pelicans soaring in the same way? The white pelicans are here now, and when the conditions are right they’ll begin to spiral into the sky, until they’re completely invisible. They rarely flap their wings; they’re masters at catching the winds and using them to their advantage.

      1. When I first saw the black vultures, they roosted in numbers and closer to the ground. The black vulture’s foraging habit could be different than those of the turkey vultures. Are those the ones you see? I’m not familiar with the turkey vulture. I once photographed a colony up-close. They lay their eggs in caves or hollow trees or on the bare ground.

        I think pelicans sore beautifully, although they kind of glide more, don’t you think? I was really familiar with the brown pelicans from the Caribbean.

  22. Lovely poem! Enjoyed reading the conversational threads here as well! These birds surely do us a service in our fallen state where animals do die… (etc)!

    Thank you for your comment also on my post regarding the outside / inside of my far-away church, that is very true, the beauty on the inside of things is often hidden!

    1. Every creature has a role to play, and the vultures play theirs well. I wouldn’t mind at all if one came along to clean up after the ospreys who leave a mess when they eat their fish on our boats, but I really don’t think vultures prefer fish!

      I thought your church was beautiful. I know of a small Orthodox church in a smaller Texas town — it looks very plain on the outside, but the next time I’m in the area I may stop and see if I can visit. It would be interesting to see if the same lovely contrast exists there.

  23. I haven’t really thought about vultures for a while (not surprising!), but your post follows a road trip to the west a week ago on which we saw more roadkill than I’d seen in a long time and, as a result, a plethora of vultures. I couldn’t quite figure out why so many animals had been killed out on those lightly-trafficked two-lane roads, but I found myself avoiding splats constantly! Both your and Jeffers’s poems amused me!

    1. I suspect most of us don’t think about vultures until we see them alongside the roads, or perching in plain sight. I suppose there are people who seek them out, but I’ve never had a friend say, “Hey — I know! Let’s go out and find some vultures.”

      As for those splats, my first hunch would be a combination of night creatures seeking out the still-warm roads and fast drivers taking advantage of light traffic. I like to listen to the Outdoor Show on 610 AM, and the hunters and fishing guides who are out and about in the middle of the night on their way to a lease or boat ramp often mention the number of critters they saw, hit, or avoided. Splat!

  24. His Poem went straight to the heart of it all, to my heart also. Yes I’d like my body to help grow a tree but oh the glorious freedom of flight! The thought of giving to a creature would certainly ease the pain of passing.

    1. In your reading of Mary Oliver, have you come across her poem titled “Vultures”? It’s interesting to compare it to Jeffers poem: two very different philosophies end in different places, albeit by the same means.

      As for the glorious freedom of flight — how can it be that no one yet has mentioned “El Condor Pasa”? It’s one of my favorites of early Simon and Garfunkel, perhaps second only to “A Hazy Shade of Winter. Both songs soar.

      1. I’ve just read it, and think you made the right choice, much as I love Mary’s work. As for the music, you’ve actually introduced me to a song of early S/G I’d somehow missed. Another night I’ll give it a good listen to. Of course, El Condor Pasa! Absolutely! You do realise I hope, that it will be running through my head for the rest of the evening!

    1. As we like to say here in Texas, I’m still alive and kicking, which pleases me very much. That imagery in Jeffers’s poem is quite something, though, and certainly is thought-provoking.

      Have you seen the condors in Peru? When it comes to soaring, I’m not sure any are more magnificent — it must be a sight to see them against the backdrop of such a landscape.

  25. Great photo, Linda. You find such interesting subjects. You must be getting out a lot and I’m glad for you but must admit that I am envious of your ability to go on field trips to explore the countryside. In my area I see the turkey and the black vultures and I often see one or the other soaring over the city. I have never seen one down on the street and I still wonder if they fly down to a meal on the street.

    1. Actually, between the terrible weather and work, I’ve only been out and about with the camera three times since the week before Thanksgiving. Well, four — if you count some really cold hours devoted to an unsuccessful search for frostweed. What is nice is that a full day can provide a lot of opportunities, and there’s always something to see.

      I had to smile at your mention of envy. I expressed the same feeling to another friend who just got back from an extensive trip to west Texas. I guess we all get that feeling from time to time — the feeling that my grandmother was talking about when she’d say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!”

      I’m still not sure if I’ve seen a black vulture. Now that I know a little more about how to identify them, I’m going to have to look more closely. I do see turkey vultures in our ditches from time to time, but of course we’re more creeping-suburban than urban, so there still is plenty of land around where critters can live. That means there’s almost always a raccoon or possum that’s met an unfortunate end, and sometimes the vultures are lucky enough to get there before the city animal control people pick up the carcasses.

      1. If I see vultures in the air I look at the wing tips. Black only have white on the wing tips and foy with wings that are held horizontal. Other than that I’ve only seen a few blacks up close but have seen lots of turkey vultures near roads. I have seen mixed flocks in fields but that was ages ago when I went on field trips.

        I like your grandmother’s “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

    1. “Enskyment” is wonderful, and that word is what led me to choose this poem. I had no idea there were so many poets who’d taken on vultures as a subject: proof positive (if any were needed) that they are fascinating birds.

      If you do a site search using “the poets’ birds” (search box is on the right, just below “Browse the Archives”) you’ll pull up all the posts in this series: osprey, song-birds, heron, and so on. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

    1. No, it’s not an ending I would choose. On the other hand (she says humorously, if a little darkly) by the time the vultures showed up, I probably wouldn’t be in any condition to do much choosing! All that aside, the birds are darned interesting, and do quite nicely for subjects when there aren’t any flowers around.

    1. It’s been years since I’ve run into one of his poems. In fact, when I first saw his name, I remembered him only as a name, and not as a poem.

      I did enjoy the look in that vultures eye; I’m glad you enjoyed the photo. I have another taken a few minutes later that shows the whole windmill with one vulture perching, but I just couldn’t resist the closer view.

  26. This isn’t poetry, but here’s a few turkey vulture factoids: http://www.iowadnr.gov/About-DNR/DNR-News-Releases/ArticleID/532/Turkey-Vultures-Don’t-Deserve-the-Bad-Rap-Cool-Facts-on-These-Iowa-Scavengers. We have a wake that regularly perch on the older of our two water towers here in town. It’s quite a sight when they gather. They’ll individually peel off and go on patrol, then come back and perch, while others then take their turn. The poet’s bird? Why not?

    1. There are some fascinating (ahem) tidbits in that article. I was especially interested in the paragraph about their curiosity, and their ability to bond with humans. Another reader (Martha) higher up in this thread told the story of being followed home by a vulture that had been released too early from a rehab facility, and still was trying to hang around with humans. As she put it, “All the poor thing wanted was human affection and maybe a sandwich…”

      It tickles me that a group of them is called a wake. That’s certainly appropriate. Now I’m trying to remember which film it was that showed a group of people — women in black, maybe — gathered around a deathbed. Whichever film it was, my image of the watchers certainly had a vulture-like feel to it.

      “The Poets’ Birds” actually is a series I’ve added two for a couple of years. If you enter that phrase in the search box on the right side, it will pull up maybe a dozen posts: herons, osprey, egrets, raptors, cedar waxwings, and so on. Each is linked with a different poem — it’s been great fun.

      1. Look what found:
        A flock of vultures on the ground is called a venue.
        A flock of vultures soaring in the air is called a kettle.
        The Latin name for Black vulture, Coragyps atratus, means raven-vulture clothed in black.
        The Latin name for Turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, means either golden purifier or purifying breeze.

        1. I like the alliteration: a venue of vultures. “Kettling” is a term I first came across after I saw some migrating hawks doing it. Here’s a nice article about the phenomenon.

          The Latin names certainly are descriptive. If only there were a counterpart to the turkey vulture that could purify things like disaster areas; leaving it to us humans can be an iffy proposition.

          1. I understand perfectly what you mean, it reminds me of my cultural anthropology class many years ago when we talked about the rituals of burying the dead. Thanks for the link.

  27. Cornell Lab Bird Cams has a California Condor nest cam up during the breeding season. The cam is currently off line but both parents have been spotted by the condor biologists at Hopper Mt. Nat’l Wildlife Refuge. They also picked up a healthy signal from #871’s transmitter, which indicates it has fledged. The cam should be live again this coming breeding season.

    1. I have to be very cautious about those bird cams. There was that hummingbird we watched — and I still remember getting hooked by an osprey a few years ago. It was July of 2011; I remember that because the last bird fledged in July, in the week my mother died. I happened to catch the event one day when I’d come home from the hospital. Funny how such things stick in the mind. There are events galore that I should be able to date, and can’t. But that osprey fledging? I’m on it.

  28. I will never forget the day a group of TVs landed in our yard. Seeing them in flight is one thing, but on the ground, they seemed monstrous, particularly as, in those days, our cat was allowed out of doors and we didn’t know where she was. So it was beyond me to imagine poetry in this bird until Verlyn Klinkenborg, who until a few years ago wrote a column on the Rural Life in the New York Times, rhapsodized about them as only he knew how. This excerpt from his column Native Element might give a sense: “There’s an insouciance about birds in their element that always feels to me like a comment on the human species. I see a vulture looking side to side as it slides by overhead, and it looks to me as though it’s artfully and intentionally ignoring the skill of its flight.”

    1. And isn’t that a mark of a master: to make the performance seem easy? Birds are a visible reminder of what it could be like to be perfectly comfortable in our element, and to have mastered the skills necessary to simply “be” there. Maybe that’s part of their attraction.

      One thing I’ve learned about vultures is that they aren’t equipped to snatch prey with the skill of a raptor. They don’t have the talons; their beak does the dirty work after the fact. So, your kitty probably was safe, although if I was roaming the same territory as these birds, I’d probably head for the bushes myself.

    1. Let’s make that one wonderful poem, and one cute bit of fun with rhymes. And isn’t “enskyment” great? When I started thinking about other words that form in the same way, there were quite a few, like “ensconce” and “enrapture.” The pattern’s usual, but his word isn’t.

  29. I rather like buzzards. The garbage man of birds. I certainly am glad that you didn’t expire by the road!! I would much rather have a buzzard hanging around than the darn red tailed hawk, that has claimed 2 of my wonderful hens.
    Loved the photo!!

    1. Even though I know hawks need to eat, I’m really sorry that one decided to dine on your darlings. Our cold weather seems to have brought more hawks out into the open, and they’re clearly on the hunt. Our ferocious winds finally died today, and the vultures were out, too. I swear they sometimes are playing, like the pelicans and ospreys. If I could fly, I’d take time for a little play in the winds, too.

      The “garbage man of birds” is a perfect description. I heard a discussion last week that centered on the interesting question of whether coyotes or vultures could dispose of a white tail faster. The consensus seemed to be that the vultures were quicker, but the coyotes did a better job. Somewhere, someone has to have done a study on that.

      Glad you liked the photo. I’ll be glad when it warms just a bit, so it’s more comfortable being outdoors. Of course, when I think what you’ve been coping with, our weather is nothing.

  30. Wow they look fierce. Don’t think we have the turkey vulture here. Maybe we do, but I haven’t seen them. That advice to keep on walking is chilling. Interesting that you’ve juxtaposed poetry with vultures. The two seem incompatible.

    1. Truly, the advice to “keep walking” is a joke, since these birds are scavengers, not hunters. An eagle would pose more of a threat, especially to very small dogs and such. Despite their scruffy/fierce/odd appearance, the turkey vultures can be somewhat timid on the ground, and can be run off from a meal by the black vultures that often follow them to a carcass.

      I’m not surprised you haven’t seen one. Even though turkey vultures are in your area, they’re barely there. This page from Alberta Environment and Parks says that:

      “A small but growing population occurs in Alberta. In 2012, 28 nests were documented in east-central Alberta, and 190 young vultures have been wing-tagged in this area in the last 5 years. This represents the northern breeding range for turkey vultures.”

      Speaking of birds, have you come across this new birding app from Cornell? I’ve just found it, and it’s already helped me identify a yellow-rumped warbler. Water birds that stand still are one thing — those little, flitty birds in bushes are much harder, and I need all the help I can get.

    1. What a wonderful connection, Sheryl. I’d forgotten about the novel, but some of those vulture-y details are coming back to me. I’ve always appreciated Faulkner, but haven’t read him for a while. Maybe I’ll pull out “As I Lay Dying” and give it another read during these gloomy days!

  31. I always loved watching the turkey vultures in California. There were tons in Pacheco Valley, where I used to live. One almost took off with our dog once–thankfully my mom popped out of her lawn chair fast enough to startle it.

    1. Your experience with your dog is interesting, since turkey vultures aren’t as eager to snatch prey as raptors; they don’t have the talons for it. On the other hand, vultures may know the old saying about, “You never try, you never know!” I imagine with its hills and valleys California is great soaring territory, with plenty of rising air to play in. I don’t think there’s any question that the birds do out out to play from time to time.

      I hope you’re getting some play time too, along with all the work you surely are involved in. It’s nice to see you — thanks for stopping by.

  32. Vultures ARE for poets. I wrote a haiku about a year ago.
    Lying in the grass
    While hungry vultures circle
    I am such a tease.
    🖤

  33. This was great – I loved your wee ditty and especially loved the rancher talking about not tempting them. Though like you i am quite sure they have no interest in a very alive and mobile person. What a great piece of work – I am glad I popped in today – Also nice to see a blue sky! c

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was thrilled yesterday to come across a pair of black vultures, hanging out in a dead tree. I’m sure they were a mated pair; it was great fun to watch them, and to be able to compare their appearance to the turkey vultures. They are quite different, after all.

      I’m glad I could offer a blue sky, too. We lost that blue sky today, and we’re in for a bit of a winter blow. It will be nothing like yours, but there’s a warning out for below freezing temperatures, rain, and ice. There might even be a bit of snow, for the third time this year. When I first moved to Texas, ice storms weren’t uncommon, and it seems we’re moving back into that pattern. I measure the severity of winters by the number of times I have to drag plants into the house.

  34. There’s much to love here! Your second paragraph, the photo itself (such messy creatures, and who cares!), the rancher’s admonition, and the final poem – that one’s a keeper. I really like it. Thank you!

    1. I do enjoy finding a way to join bits and pieces into a coherent (or semi-coherent!) whole. A poem, a photo, a bit of poetic fun, a little science: when it comes together as it should, the whole always is more than the sum of its parts.

      I’m glad you like Jeffers’s poem. I know he was mentioned when I was in school, but his work never stuck with me in the same way that other poets’ did. I was happy to find this, and glad that so many appreciated it.

    1. I don’t know how they’d feel about turkey pot pie, but I have gotten a few reports that the best way to repel turkey vultures is to put out a dead one. Apparently they won’t scavenge the remains of one of their own.

      I also learned that black vultures sometimes make life easier for themselves by waiting until the turkey vultures find dinner. Then the black ones, who have good eyesight but not such a good sense of smell, will fly over and try to get a spot at the table. So much for the negative connotations of bird-brain.

  35. Definitely a different perspective to the one I have held since 2012 when visiting The Gambia, my smiling coast for the first time.
    One of the ‘to do’ tourist thing to do was to watch the vultures feeding at 11 a.m in the nearby hotel. My friend watched the whole lot but I came away feeling quite disturbed. This feeling was associated with tourists viewing quite an unpleasant act and that the local hungry people could have been given the food leftover. What does that say about vulcher/human superiority?
    As I am currently visiting The Gambia now for three months I may ‘do the tourist’ thing again with a different eye.
    Thank you for helping me overcome my guilt feelings regarding this.
    I was the only person in the group who came away, perhaps I am not tough enough for this harsh world.

    1. By any chance, did you see the vulture feeding at the Senegambia Hotel? I knew that the birds being fed there would be different from our black and turkey vultures, and sure enough, they’re the hooded vulture, a bird that’s critically endangered. It’s possible that the hotel isn’t just cashing in on them. Given the number of scientists and researchers who seem to be tracking the birds in the country, I’m sure that the procedures being used are monitored.

      I wonder if some of the people coming to see the birds are bird watchers, like those who travel to Texas to see the whooping cranes? It would be interesting to know.

      In any case, thanks for stopping by, and for commenting. I appreciate you introducing me to a different species of vulture — they’re all quite interesting. Enjoy your stay there, and enjoy the birds!

      1. Thanks shoreacres,
        It was The Senegambia Hotel and I will revisit and keep you posted. I am especially interested in the beautiful birds of The Gambia and may schedule a birdwatching trip.

          1. Hi shoreacres,
            Seems a long time since my last posting. A lot of water gone under the bridge since then. Surprised to see our last communication was in January. I hadn’t realised I was considering a bird trip. It is booked 1-1 on Sunday 8 April 8 a.m. Will keep you posted.
            Since my last posting I have accessed the Senegambia hotel grounds regularly & appreciate the stillness & calm more by the day. Some days I write in my journal with the sound of the waves in the background.

            1. It’s lovely to have you stop by with an update, Margaret. Time does pass quickly, doesn’t it? I’m glad you have a trip scheduled; I’ll look forward to reading about it. Migrations are happening here. Birds are coming and going in the ages-old way. It’s great fun to see.

  36. Jeffers sets a stern standard. I suppose I have the same inner conviction that I’m at work trying to align myself with nature (or words to that effect) as thousands or millions of other people. My mental path stops short of being consumed by a big black carrion bird. At some future date, inevitably, I foresee being “subsumed” or “absorbed,” but not “eaten.” But, nothing is more natural or more inherently OF nature. Difficult to make the commitment to place myself IN the food chain. Perhaps I’ll make progress.

    1. When I first read Jeffers’s poem, I experienced a bit of emotional whiplash myself when I reached those last lines. I suspect most of us prefer avoiding thoughts of what happens to our bodies once death has come. I remember with amusement a friend in Salt Lake City who used to discuss disposition of her body with her children. She’d say to them, “I’d prefer to be cremated, but whatever you do, don’t scatter my ashes over water. You know I can’t swim!”

      There’s one detail in the photo no one picked up on: the chain that prevents the windmill’s turning. The combination of the poem and the chain brought Prometheus to mind: yet another level of meaning to be explored.

      1. Ah, I should’ve thought of ol’ Prometheus right off. Not paying attention! There are plenty of existentially-oriented thinkers who suggest Prometheus embraced his punishment (likewise Sisyphus) for its confirmation of his achievement. I’m not there, yet.

        1. Interestingly, I used the phrase “Sisyphean poet” in the poem that gave my blog its title. I should repost that. Enough time has passed that most current readers don’t know where “The Task At Hand” came from.

      2. Say, returning to another topic, at a local library book sale last week, I found a paperback Penguin Classic of SG&tGK. It’s an EDITION, not a translation, original ME with regularized orthography and text notes (although in the back of the book, not au courant with referents), and glossary. Editor J.A. Burrow. Is that your volume? I nabbed it for 25 cents! There’s also a Penguin translation by Brian Stone, which I do not yet have. I look forward to being overtaken by a word-grubbing frame of mind and comparing Burrows’ editorial notes with those of Cawley and Tolkein, although those scholarly pretensions sweep over me less and less often as the years pass.

        1. I have the Penguin 2nd edition, translated and with an introduction by Brian Stone. It also has notes in the back, and a bibliography. There’s no glossary, although there are several short “Notes on Arthurian Matters” and some other interpretive materials. A few pages of the original text are included, too. I’ve found the original is just as comprehensible with the book turned upside down.

    1. And just as you hoped, those vultures left you alone; now, you can enjoy remembering them today. They are great fun to watch, and for us as kids, they had the advantage of being big, so we could see them in the sky. There’s not much need to keep asking, “Where?” when the vultures are around!

  37. This inhumanism concept is pretty fascinating. Personally, I like my animals anthropomorphized, if that’s a word (squiggles tell me no). And when they are, they usually turn up smarter than I am!

    1. It’s a word, Jeanie. The ‘r’ had slipped into the wrong place, so it was a typo that caused the squiggle. I fixed it up for you. It always amazes, or surprises, or frustrates me that I can look and look at a word and not see an error like that until someone points it out. Then, it might as well be in flashing neon.

      As for “inhumanism,” I understand his point intellectually, but it’s still not particularly satisfying. It’s not just a matter of being munched on by a vulture, either. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It has been interesting to learn how many cultures practice so-called “sky burials.” Native Americans, certain groups in South America, Zoroastrians, all do — or have. As much as Jeffers traveled, and as interested in Eastern practices as he was, the imagery might have been grounded in his own, quite unique experience.

  38. I’ve never seen a turkey vulture before, what a funny looking bird! I like your little off-the-cuff poem, and Robinson Jeffers’ poem is interesting but I think when I go, I’d still rather not be anyone’s dinner!

    Here we have buzzards and there’s one that loves sitting on a pole about a mile up the road from us (can’t see it from the house but can from the road) and we’ve nicknamed it ‘Billy Buzzard’. We also have occasional visits from Red Kite and there is a feeding centre in Rhayader, which we’ve been to, where they put food out for the crows and wait for the Red Kite to come along and ‘mug’ them! You can read about it here:http://www.gigrin.co.uk/red-kite-feeding/

    1. It is a little odd looking, for sure. The best thing about that red head is that it makes it easy to identify the bird in flight. Even if you can’t quite sort out the underside of the wings (the black and white patterns are different for the turkey and black vultures) the head is a dead giveaway: so to speak.

      It’s interesting how birds will adopt a certain territory, making it possible to find them on a regular basis. There’s a small falcon — an American kestrel — that I’ve seen three times now in the same territory. Knowing to look for it makes it much more likely that I’ll see it. It’s no wonder you’ve named your buzzard. They do become familiar: part of the landscape, but more.

      That was an interesting read about the farm. I had wondered how such a thing began, but it’s good to see that there was a purpose behind it that benefits the birds. I enjoyed the detailed description of the birds’ behavior, too. The kites’ behavior reminds me of the seagulls that follow our pelicans, determined to snatch the pelicans’ fish from them.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the poem, Lavinia. Have you heard John Mayer’s song, “Vultures”. He’s hardly an independent singer/songwriter, but some of his work is fine. The lyrics can be found here.

      I hope all is “springing” in your world! So nice to have you stop by — enjoy the week.

    1. That bit of Belloc doggerel is wonderful. I’d never read Wilbur’s poem; I found it enjoyable, too. Thanks for adding all of the selections. I never had considered how many vulture poems are flying around; it’s been interesting to find them.

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