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May 1, 2003

The Vultures of Spring

The first of May, and Spring is in full swing. There is no higher Holiday than May Day on the Arboretum calendar. I've said it is the Holiday of the Moment: a day not for the observation of any anniversary, but for observation as such; for immersion in the ecstatic moment of being. That makes it the ideal holiday for birdwatchers, especially in our area, where the date generally coincides with the beginning of the main flow of returning migrants. For the next three weeks the Park will be virtually overrun with expectant birders, and I trust they will not be disappointed.

Expectation is a big part of the birding game. I bird all year 'round, as a basic aspect of my weekly visit to the Park. I've found there's always something worth seeing, as long as your expectations are realistic. In Winter, that might mean hoping for one unusual duck; in the middle of Summer it might be a glimpse of fledglings fresh out of the nest. There's not a whole lot else going on at those times, and most birders don't bother with the Park outside of the migration periods. It's more productive to travel to our local barrier beaches, or further afield, to areas where expectations may be higher.

For me, the birds are just an index of a deeper engagement, but you can be sure I develop some expectations of my own come Springtime. Migration in April is more fitful than in May, and hopes are often dashed by wintry weather that refuses to depart, or by a simple lack of birds, even when it seems they should be around. Still, anticipation entices and incites, so I'm out there, trying to keep my expectations under control, but hoping for some early sign of vernal promise. An impatient warbler, perhaps? A premature flash of yellow from some southern bird, overshooting its intended destination: a Yellow-throated Warbler; a Kentucky; maybe even a Prothonotary?
Such things are known to happen.
So what did I find, on a splendid morning in waning April? Some beautiful little bird to set my heart a-fluttering with the speed of warbler wings?
I got vultures.

There I was, in the middle of the North Woods, when I found myself staring up the wrong end of a Turkey Vulture. At first I took the big, dark, ungainly shape in the treetop for one of those plastic trash bags that Winter scatters through the branches, but this one had feathers, and a bright red head. When I lowered my binocular I saw that there was a second bird, circling in classic vulture fashion, then descending to a nearby perch, while the first one hissed and hunched and flapped its way to an adjacent tree. This dance went on for a few minutes, until both of the birds departed, only to reappear a couple of times, making larger and higher circles around the north end of the Park, before finally disappearing entirely from my view, if not from my consciousness.

The possibilities for metaphorical interpretation are all too obvious. No friendly Robin, or any warbling songster, this year’s herald of Spring is a dusky carrion bird, arriving on the heels of war. But today, of all days, is no time for metaphors, and on this occasion I've promised myself that, in the words of the old spiritual, I ain't gonna study war no more. So let's study the Vulture instead, and see how it fits into the Springtide.

Despite its dark reputation, the Turkey Vulture is considered a "good" bird, at least in Central Park. They're not seen here often, though they regularly fly over during migration. Only serious birders are apt to spot them, little black specks against the high sky. They can be identified at great distances by their characteristic dihedral wing posture, their rocking motion, and their soaring flight style. That's how they are typically seen hereabouts; it's quite rare for one to actually touch down in the Park, let alone two of them. So I was happy with my sighting, the best looks I've ever had at the species. And yet, I must admit I was somewhat taken aback by their presence.

It's hard to know where the line is drawn between learned and instinctual responses. We've learned that vultures are associated with corpses, and we find them odious for that reason. They’re big, almost eagle-size, and any large wild animal will trigger an instinctive alarm, but I think the gut-level thing that grabbed me was the bird's naked head. This is an adaptation to the diet of carrion: it's hard to keep your cranial feathers clean when you spend a lot of time sticking your head into the recesses of a carcass. Hence, vultures worldwide have naked heads. The head appears small compared to other birds, but that’s only because it has no feathers to exaggerate its size and shape. Laid bare, the underlying structure of any bird’s head is a little like a reptile's. A beak is substituted for toothed jaws, but the basic form confirms the evolutionary heritage. There's nothing odd about a vulture's head except that it upsets our expectation of a bird as an animal entirely covered by feathers. As a result, this bird looks somehow "wrong", and elicits a strange range of emotional responses. There's concern that the poor thing has been plucked, or perhaps damaged in a fight, or maybe it's ill, but this concern conflates with the inadvertent voyeur’s sense of embarrassment over an unexpected confrontation with nudity. Maybe it's just too intimate for us to see the naked flesh of a feathered creature.

But no, there's nothing wrong with a vernal vulture, bald pate and all. It’s just not quite what I expected. But let me point out that while the local Red-tailed Hawks have legions of followers, and are widely admired, vultures might be a better model for us. They don't go around killing things, the way the hawks do. They are of an older, gentler lineage, akin to the storks, which are notably associated with birth. Vultures attend the other end of life, but they’re not violent; their relationship with death is more priestly than prosecutorial. Scavenger is an ancient niche, given less honor than it deserves. Vultures are involved in recycling; their highly evovlved immune systems allow them to act as purifiers of the environment. They do the dirty work on the food chain, and get little credit for it. They serve as a higher taxon reminder of the microscopic forces of decay, which we might prefer to ignore; a reminder of the dialectical intertwining of Life and Death. Beneficent caretakers, Vultures embody "green" values. They should be celebrated; we should be pointing to them as an example for our children; the Green Party should adopt the Vulture as a mascot...

But that would be expecting too much subtlety of a political symbol. Besides, politics will only lead me back to war, and I said I wasn't going to get into that. In fact, at least for today, I'm going to dispense with the symbolic altogether. I'm just going to go out there and give the day free rein to mean whatever it may, in May. I won't try to see anything except what's there, and I will have no expectations, not even of the expected. I will leave the soaring shadows of April behind, and accept the Vulture as one more pretty birdie of the Spring.

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