August 25, 2002

The Peace Eagle

I have had second thoughts. Perhaps I painted the Turkey Vulture in too unkindly a light. I came to this conclusion after watching their graceful and exuberant performance riding the thermals over our pasture before an approaching storm yesterday. Magnificent, graceful, uplifting. My apologies for any slight to these birds in my entry the other day, and also for the mild taxonomic faux pas, for purists who eschew common names, in calling this creature a BUZZARD.

In common usage, they are called turkey buzzards, carrion crows, and red-necked buzzards. Buzzards, in correct usage, applies to some of the hawks of Europe, I believe. New World vultures, on the other hand, are classified in the same large bird group as storks and flamingos. This group also includes the California Condor, a larger bird with a better reputation than the lowly vulture only because of its rarity and its impressive size. The Turkey Vulture's scientific name is noteworthy: cathartes aura. Catharsis. Purification; cleansing. Ugly bird, nice name.

Like the American Turkey, both Black and Turkey Vultures have heads free of feathers. This does little for appearance, but is a definite advantage in hygiene, since both are primarily, although not exclusively, feeders from the carcasses of dead animals. (Up to 50% of their diet can come from grasses, leaves and seeds). They are exquisitely suited to their feeding methods, most notably in the fact that they can eat decaying meat that is foul-smelling and dense with bacteria and viruses, and suffer no ill effects. The disinfecting abilities of the their digestion is being studied, for instance, in possible ways to inactivate such organisms as the hanta virus. The droppings and regurgitated pellets from the carcasses they process are free of disease organisms. They further disinfect their own bodies by urinating on their featherless legs; this may also serve to cool them down in very hot conditions, which they tolerate rather well. Whatever, it is another negatively-endearing trait that ranks this bird at the very bottom of most peoples 'favorite birds' list. While some folks are rather fond of it.

We have both kinds of 'buzzards' over our valley for much of the year. Some notable differences separate them. The Turkey Vulture is larger, feeds more by smell, and tends to soar gracefully with few wing beats, sometimes for hours without rest. It is said that Turkey Vultures tend to circle over natural gas leaks, being able to smell the mercaptans that are added to the odorless gas, since this substance is also present in decaying flesh. Their ability to find even a small, hidden food source far below is remarkable. And once found by one, somehow this is communicated to many others, quickly. How, we do not know.

The soaring flight of the Turkey Vulture is perhaps its most redeeming esthetic quality, for those of us you who are put off by close-up appearance and reprehensible choice of foods and feeding. From below, the outline of a soaring Turkey Vulture is that of a broad "W". Seen from behind or in front, black vulture wings are more or less straight across from wingtip to wingtip, while the Turkey Vulture's wings form a shallow "V", with the body of the bird at the low point of the V. I once sat up on a favorite high point, Monster Rock, in Wythe County, watching the sun go down. From overhead came a sound like a speeding bullet. I looked up just in time to see a Turkey Vulture pull up out of a steep and amazingly fast dive, which it repeated over and over. They do seem to fly for fun, and vicariously, I soar with them.

I was not aware that among those that migrate each year, they tend to return to the same summer roosting areas precisely on the vernal equinox. This year, I will be watching for them on that day. Pardon this long winded pean to an unappreciated bird that the Cherokee called the "Peace Eagle". I think maybe when it is time for me to teach the birds to my grandchildren, this is what we will call them.

Posted by fred1st at August 25, 2002 09:08 AM

Gee, Mr. First. THings look great at your new digs. WHen ya going to bail on blogger and move everything over here? And, now that you have a comment, will it show up in the right hand frame like it is supposed to?

Posted by: fredf at August 26, 2002 03:16 PM

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