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.

 

The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
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The Poets’ Birds: Osprey

“Osprey” ~ John James Audubon

 

Oh, large, brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,
as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,
before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink—
I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon—
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.
                                                                   “Osprey” ~ Billy Collins

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on Collins, a former United States Poet Laureate, please click here.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Shy and Silent Ones

Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

 

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

                                The Extinction of Silence ~  A.E. Stallings

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron

heronwingbwr 

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings
open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself —
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn’t a miracle
but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
“Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”
~  Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, is mine.

The Poets’ Birds: Cranes

cranesSandhill cranes ~ Brazoria County, Texas
I call my wife outdoors to have her listen,
to turn her ears upward, beyond the cloud-veiled
sky where the moon dances thin light,
to tell her, “Don’t hear the cars on the freeway—
it’s not the truck-rumble. It is and is not
the sirens.” She stands there, on deck
a rocking boat, wanting to please the captain
who would have her hear the inaudible.
Her eyes, so blue the day sky is envious,
fix blackly on me, her mouth poised on question
like a stone. But, she hears, after all.
January on the Gulf,
warm wind washing over us,
we stand chilled in the winter of those voices.
                                “The Cranes, Texas January” ~ Mark Sanders

Rough, raw — nearly indescribable — the sound of their call alerts me to their presence. On the open prairie, they tease even the most dedicated seeker, bobbing and bending among the grasses: oblivious to our longings.

Still, they comfort. Their hidden voices echo grace and beauty; the rhythms of their beating wings carry on the wind. “Listen,” they seem to say. “We have come, and soon will leave, but for this time, we offer you our world.”

Comments always are welcome. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.  Thanks to reader Bob Freeman, who pointed me to the poem.