Saturday Night Augur-International Vulture Awareness Day Edition

While I’ve had my head down, trying to push on with the first draft of a novel and developing a spinoff of Thoughts Like Birds (can blogs have spinoffs?), I almost missed International Vulture Awareness Day. Vultures are near and dear to the augur’s heart and may (or may not) play a big role in the novel-in-progress–again, it’s a first draft, so it’s hard to say where it will end up. While I figure that out, I’m rerunning an excerpt from an old creative nonfiction project in which vultures do indeed feature prominently. Please be sure to check out the resources at the bottom of this page for more information on these remarkable and beautiful–yes, beautiful–birds.

Lovebirds: like many birds species, black vultures bond by grooming one another (allopreening). (Image from Shutterstock.)

Lovebirds: like many bird species, black vultures bond by grooming one another, a practice known as “allopreening.” (Image copyright Steve Byland/Shutterstock.)

If you drive down Eubanks Road in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, of a beautiful sunny day, you are apt to notice vultures cruising the warm air thermals high overhead, drifting in an ever-widening gyre in search of some tasty, putrid morsel. Two species of New vultures share our ecological neck of the woods: the red-headed turkey vulture, Carthartes aura, and the less showy black vulture, Coragyps atratus. Both are inclined to loiter near a bit of roadkill, but black vultures, which can drive off the larger turkey vultures by virtue of tenacity and sheer numbers, tend to congregate around water. One morning I spied a row of black vultures on a fence surrounding a farmer’s pond, each perched on its own post, stretching and preening. What draws the vultures, both black and turkey, along with crows, starlings, grackles, and even daintier species such as dark-eyed juncos and song sparrows, to Eubanks Road, however, is the county landfill.

As Ben Franklin championed the wild turkey, I have long lauded this ignoble bird and its crucial role as a scavenger. True, sanitation workers and undertakers now take on much of the vulture’s traditional workload, but these scavenging raptors still help us keep a clean nest by eating carrion both on and off road, accelerating the nutrient recycling process and keeping our environs considerably less fetid. Like many other non-human species, though, New and Old World vulture populations have declined due to development, environmental toxins, and reduced food supply. In India, the Parsi custom of placing the dead in towers for vultures to devour has been adversely affected by the waning number of birds. Vulture populations there have declined 97 percent in the past two decades, due, at least in part, to toxicity of domesticated animal carcasses caused by a common veterinary drug. A century ago the teeming birds could reduce a corpse to bones in a matter of minutes. Now, the odor from decomposing bodies and bits of human flesh dropped in heavily populated areas by the few remaining vultures are forcing Parsi Zoroastrians to consider cremation, believed to be a desecration of the element of fire, as an alternative.

The first time I ever saw vultures up close I was driving from Silver Spring, Maryland, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to staff a table on wildlife protection at a college environmental fair. As the borrowed Nissan pickup I was driving rattled along at the speed limit, I noticed the hunch-shouldered birds draped like black crepe among the bare branches of a large hardwood. It was my first time living away from home, out of state, in fact, and every new experience was a rapture. I pulled into a turnout a few yards ahead of the tree and got out of the truck.

I realized then I was standing along side of the Gettysburg National Military Park, bounded by zig-zagging split rail fences. These birds, I later learned, were probably descendants of the vultures that took up residence in a War Department tower that once stood on the Big Round Top boulder so they could make a feast of the dead horses that littered the battlefield back in the summer of 1863. Gettysburg now hosts a resident population of close to a thousand black and turkey vultures, and on this day seventeen of them had assembled over the car-struck carcass of a white-tailed deer. The vultures seemed to be in no hurry, but perhaps these shy creatures were simply awaiting an opportunity to safety descend the berm, unfretted by passing automobiles and leering humans. It was, I think, a preferable rendering for the poor deer, whose remains likely would have ended up in the back of a public works truck destined for the dump.

American vultures are pretty much limited to such happy finds these days, but in other cultures and other times they have been appreciated for their efficient dispatching of corpses. Tibetans traditionally have offered their dead to the vultures in a form of corpse disposal called jhator, or giving alms to the birds. Some believe the vultures to be dakinis, minor female deities of wrath or beneficent disposition. A dead body might be left in a remote area for scavengers or to decay naturally, but families who are able to afford it opt for a ceremony in which a butcher is employed to dismember the corpse with an ornate, curved flaying blade called a kartika, and distribute the limbs and organs to waiting vultures. In the jhator ceremony, the vultures sit on nearby rocks like well-trained, if impatient, dogs until the butcher calls to them.

American vultures, for wont of such veneration and ceremony, have learned to pick through our trash. Nature’s undertakers are now nature’s dumpster divers. The day I happened by the landfill, a wake of buzzards had amassed on the north side nearest the road. That part of the dump had been recently been turned up by earth movers that now sat silent at the end of the workday and provided prime perches for the vultures. As I stepped around the closed gate to get a better look, a county employee pulled up in his truck to ask if he could help me. “Just bird watching,” I told him, which elicited a laugh and the suggestion that I take some vultures home with me. I would, I thought. I would if I weren’t a vegan without scraps of dead things to toss them. I would be thrilled if one morning while I sat looking out my kitchen window with my coffee and my Audubon’s Guide to Backyard Birds, a few hulking, hissing vultures joined the chickadees and purple finches at the feeders.

In truth, the dump may be the closest thing we have to a charnel ground. It’s filled not with our dead (hopefully), but with the detritus of all the species we use and discard: in addition to roadkill, it is the final resting place of the thousands of homeless dogs and cats “put to sleep” in the local shelter each year, as well as those companion animals who go in the front door of the vet’s office and out the back to a “city burial.” It’s filled with meat and bones and mice in traps and poisoned rats and the unknown contents of plastic garbage bags.

Like the county worker who stopped to investigate my suspicious loitering, many people place vultures in the ever-expanding “rats with wings” class of fauna. In neighborhoods surrounding the Parsi Towers of Silence, residents complain of dropped body parts. In neighborhoods surrounding the Orange County landfill, residents complain, rightfully so, of being stiffed with affluent Chapel Hill’s waste and the environmental consequences of a landfill built at their back stoops. They complain, too, of the vultures perched on power lines, but that seems to be more an issue of the willies than a health hazard. In one Florida community, the Solid Waste Authority was so vexed they took to shooting the birds, until the county commissioners voted to look for non-lethal means of deterring them. A biologist in Ohio has found that making effigies of dead, stuffed vultures, displayed both “supine and hanging,” bummed out live vultures enough to cause them to disperse.

* * * *

Why we need an International Vulture Awareness Day: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/05/an-awareness-of-vultures-in-our-poisonous-world/

How, and why, wildlife poachers are killing Africa’s vultures: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/opinion/the-poisoning-of-africas-vultures.html?_r=0

For an update on the status of the critically endangered California condor, visit http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/birds/soaring-over-brink-california-condor.

Celebrate IVAD with BirdNote: http://birdnote.org/blog/2014/09/vultures-natures-clean-crew

The Great Horned Owl is one of many "non-target" species harmed by rat poison.

Saturday Night Augur–The Owls of Summer

My blog posts have been few and far between lately. What started out as a three thrice-per-week endeavor has become, shall we say, a seasonal endeavor. But not blogging doesn’t mean I’m not writing. This summer I’ve been keeping my head down while I work on two novel manuscripts, and currently I’m engaged in a one-week, one-on-one creative nonfiction workshop with writer Lisa Romeo called “Narrative in Nonfiction.” I’m all about “story” these days, something, I was surprised to discover, I haven’t always attended to in my nonfiction or fiction writing. This November I’m headed to Salem, Massachusetts, for the inaugural Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, and I hope to arrive with my little laptop gravid with story.

All the while the owls keep calling, and the augur takes heed. Have a listen to this two-minute BirdNote piece “Night Voices of Summer,” featuring my personal favorite owl sound, a pair of barred owls making their rollicking “monkey call.”  In a previous post (see below), I wrote about dangers faced by migrating snowy owls. I encourage you to check out this 10,000 Birds post about the threat to owls and other wildlife, as well as children and pets, posed by rat poison, and the long battle to implement alternative methods of rodent control that are less hazardous to “non-target” species.

The Great Horned Owl is one of many "non-target" species harmed by rat poison.

The Great Horned Owl is one of many “non-target” species harmed by rat poison.

For an owlicious Saturday Night Augur throwback (all the way back to last December), see Midwinter Auspices: Saturday Night Augur, Winter Solstice Edition.

The Tweeting Whitmans: How a Dead Poet’s Mother Made Me Love Twitter

Friends, I have a confession to make.

Several posts back I professed my dislike of Twitter. I may even have used stronger words than “dislike.” True, for lo these many years I did not see the potential benefits of tweeting and being tweeted at. I’m a natural-born Slow Reader, skimming when it suits my needs but generally preferring, in reading as in all endeavors, not to rush. In my previous explorations of the Twitterverse, loose arrays of words seemed to hurtle toward me with meteoroidal velocity and indifference. Too much, too fast.

Since first reading Walt Whitman as a teenager, I have taken to heart the poet’s admonition to dismiss whatever insults my soul (which, despite the egalitarianism expressed in his poems, I now know would include some of Whitman’s own beliefs). And so it was with Twitter. Aside from engaging in some mass tweeting at Congress, I have pretty much avoided Twitter altogether. Two things prompted me to reconsider Twitter:

First, I read “Should You Be on Twitter?” by Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed, in which the author enumerates the pros and cons of joining Twitter. After considering the considerable pros (some of which apply to writers with books to promote, but I think Twitter can be more generally useful in connecting writers with other writers), I felt that perhaps it was time to lay down my “grudge” against Twitter and give it another try.

And then, just as I was beginning to soften to the idea of Twitter, I came across “The Tweetable Letters of ‘Mother Whitman’” on the blog of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The poet’s mother’s “tweets” are excerpted from “walter dear”: The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt.” The full volume, edited by Wesley Raabe, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kent State University, appears on the Walt Whitman Archive, along with Whitman’s correspondence with other family members and with eminent figures of the time. With tweets such as these, I was won over:

It turns out that the Good Gray Poet himself is pretty tweetable. Were Whitman alive today, I’m not sure he would use Twitter, but then again, his poetry has always struck me as rather urgent. Maybe letting loose with a few barbaric tweets over the Internet would have satisfied his need to sound his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Or maybe not.

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Out of the cradle endlessly rocking–read Whitman’s Sea-Drift poems at http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/106.

Maybe the fact that I was spurred to join Twitter by the “tweets” of people who have been dead for more than a century doesn’t bode well for me socially. But in the week or so that I’ve been using Twitter, I’ve come to appreciate its spareness, relative to Facebook, as well as its capacity as an information-sharing medium and a tool for connecting like-minded people. (I also see the potential for distraction, procrastination, and feeling bad about myself.) In order to keep it manageable, I’ve decided to limit my following to writers, agents, editors, literary journals and writing-related publications, libraries, historical societies, bird organizations (well, because birds), and friends. Writer Nina Badzin provides a great primer for new Twitter users. Following Nina’s advice, I’ve truly enjoyed my Twitter experience so far.

Writing, as we know, can be a lonely undertaking. I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy myself on Twitter, slow-reading introvert that I am. Obviously, I was wrong.

To see what I’ve been up to since joining the 21st century, check out Tweets Like Birds in the sidebar at right.