As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a big proponent of birds as metaphor. But sometimes, a bird is just a bird.
Welcome to Saturday Night Augur, a new, hopefully regular feature of Thoughts Like Birds. It’s a little nested doll of a blog, a way for me to indulge my affinity for all things avian. Some of my Saturday Night Augur material will be new, some of it old stuff (this evening’s selection, for example) that was otherwise destined for the bottom of the birdcage.
Given the unseasonably mild temperatures in my neck of the woods lately, my thoughts have turned to autumn. The Canada geese have been making nightly, honking treks over my neighborhood, a portent of the great southerly migrations to come. Bird-loving geeks will be interested to know that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has taken augury high tech with with its site Birdcast. Unfortunately, things are looking a little uneventful in the Southeast region at present: “Conditions for migration will be mostly unfavorable or marginal at best for this forecast period for nearly the entire region. With the exception of a late-in-the-period break that will see moderate movements from the Mississippi East into the southern Appalachians, most of the remainder of the week will see scattered and local light movements in southerly and easterly wind and scattered precipitation.”
Not to worry–things will pick up. Besides, I don’t need an ornithologist to know which way the bird flies. I’ve long felt drawn to birds, to watching their movements and listening to their songs without necessarily committing myself to typical birding pursuits. Watching the murmurations of blackbirds over my old Montgomery County, Maryland, haunts was something of a hobby of mine. Included here are excerpts of a short collection of creative nonfiction pieces I wrote in 2006-2007 called “Learning the Language of the Birds.” I had to retype the excerpts (it’s been that long), so I do apologize for the usual wolf-quality editing.
A little background: as part of my exploration of magical thinking–specifically apophenia, the tendency to see a link between two unrelated phenomena–and belief in soul survival, I consulted three mediums, in an attempt to critically evaluate their readings. Two of them described my affinity for birds, one of them recounting a particular encounter I’d had with a crow after my mother died. The third talked about my huge aura (it’s hard to be humble when your aura is as huge as mine) and told me that I had been educated in “the Greek oracle schools” many lifetimes ago. In Ancient Greece and Rome, augurs practiced ornithomancy, the practice of reading messages in the flight of birds. Thinks I, put two and two together and you got yourself an augur.
Anyway, that’s the setup. Next Saturday, I’ll try my hand at a little divination.
From “Epilogue: Birth of an Ornithomancer”
The first time I lived away from home, in Silver Spring, Maryland, I used to drive some evenings to a Rockville parking lot where thousands of blackbirds–starlings, grackles, crows–convened at twilight to roost in the adjacent woods. One evening I found a sickly crow sitting in a bed of ivy and enlisted my co-worker to hold her on his lap while we drove and hour an a half to the nearest bird rehabilitator. Around that time I decided, for no particular reason, that a crow flying over my right shoulder was good luck. I never ascribed any bigger message, though, to the roosting blackbirds–I just liked the feeling of sitting and watching, anonymous in the long shadows, while the scattershot silhouettes of birds dipped and reeled against the pink sky.
From “I Made My Love a Diamond”
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.
For further reading:
Seamans, Thomas W. “Response of Roosting Turkey Vultures to a Vulture Effigy.” The Ohio Journal of Science, 104 (5):136-138, 2004.
Seshardi, Sudha. “Buried in the Sky.” Reprinted from Science and Theology Times, September, 2004. Available from BeliefNet, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/152/story_15243_1.html
Vulture Rescue, http://www.vulturerescue.org/