A text message pinged on the phone as I was making breakfast this morning: a friend in Seattle, a print artist– “I just heard that it’s Vulture Awareness Day! Thinking of you!”
I was actually getting ready to leave for the wildlife shelter, filling in for a volunteer who was called east on family business. The shelter’s primary effort is to rehab injured wildlife of all kinds and get them back out into their habitat, and we are coming through a record summer census, and what we hope might be the end of baby squirrel season. The shelter also has an education program that goes out into any of the regional counties—to community groups, churches, public events, and schools, with non-releasable wildlife ‘ambassadors’. To be a steward in the education program is its own form of specialization and within that program there are levels of training and difficulty, so when one of us is missing, the spot has to be filled by another ed steward, and off I went. Getting the word that it was International Vulture Day just helped me focus: first I would check in with the Princess, aka Remington, our resident turkey vulture, and get her out into the thin September sunshine.
In addition to two winning opossums, the shelter’s education program has two beautiful barred owls, red tail hawks from two different regions of the United States, a lovely, small and deadly female kestrel, and a peregrine falcon. But the Princess is the largest, obviously, and in several ways the most challenging to handle. I was delighted to be informed that today was her day.
Occasionally people will ask me, “Aren’t they just incredibly ugly and disgusting?” Or better yet, “What do you feed the vulture?” Seriously. This is a vulture. What on earth do you think?
But I feel it incumbent to say that while the common impression of vultures is that they should be sitting on the left bank of the river Styx and no closer, Princess Remi is an excellent wildlife ambassador for the shelter, and an incredibly effective teaching tool.
The continental United States has two resident vulture species: the smaller black vulture of the southern and gulf states, and the turkey vulture, which is everywhere else, including Central and South America. For this reason they’re referred to as “new world vultures”—and yes, there are also Old World Vultures, but more on that in a moment.
When we schedule a program I try to get into the classroom before anyone else, as Remi travels in the largest size dog crate on a small cart, often with an assistant to help me schlepp the whole contraption up and around. The students file in at the appointed time and we go over a few basic concepts: the purpose of the wildlife shelter, the difference between domestic and wild animals, how even the youngest of them can help with the habitat, and some general facts about adaptation. A few concepts can tell them a lot about what a creature is designed to do, and it can make studying them much more interesting and fun. For instance, most birds have virtually no sense of smell: they have the brain area for scent, but it’s not developed because they don’t need it, whether they’re eating seeds and insects, or a raptor hunting live prey with their very sharp eyesight. This bird I am about to bring out, I tell them, is one of the very few that does have a sense of smell: why would that be the case? I might have to wait one, maybe two beats before an enthusiast in the back fires up at full arm’s length to get my attention: “So they can smell their prey!” “And what does that mean they would be eating?” I ask—“Why would it smell?” Another hand blasts up. “Because it’s dead–!” and the crowd swoons.
I then turn to the crate and uncover it to reach inside; most raptors are solitary, though our education birds are used to crowds and very tolerant. But vultures are a species that actually likes group events and gatherings in the wild. Not only is Remington curious about where we are and who is out there, she has excellent timing: having stepped up onto my gloved arm she emerges– shriveled little red head first, then the thickly feathered body, and then, when she clears the opening of the crate, she unfolds her giant wings, raised like the victorious stance of Eva Peron.
The crowd is amazed.
From there, we can talk about how beautifully this bird is designed for its place in the world: the feet, rather than talons, so that it can stand flat on the ground or on carcasses; the tiny, featherless head with the single hollow nostril, so that when it’s face is inserted in something damp or sticky the vulture has no problem shaking things off or blowing them out; the broad, elegant wings for soaring great distances and riding thermals, using its remarkable eyesight to scout across open ranges for things immobile; and that ability to smell, which can detect something rotting, even if the vulture is flying over forests and tree canopies.Like albatrosses, the vulture’s wings are so long that it can’t take immediately to the air—thus it has developed its secret weapon to drive off any possible predator: the vulture simply vomits on command.
I arrive at the shelter just before noon and head out to her enclosure, met en route by an energetic and young aspiring education volunteer. “Are you going to get Remi? Can I come along?” Remington is sitting down on her perch and rises as we approach, and I notice she is shaking. This can be because she’s responding to the change in seasons (it is still about 57 degrees when I appear) or she’s nervous, wondering what I’m doing there and why I’m bringing this young blonde person with me. I enter the enclosure and she turns her back to me, which can either show willingness for me to put on her jesses or a way to block me—I can’t ever be certain. She takes a couple of swipes at me with her beak, but she’s fairly compliant—I connect her leash, ask her to step up on the glove and she does, and we head out into the weathering area, then to the grounds beyond.
When we hit the first patch of bright sunshine the wings go out like mobile solar panels: maybe she was cold after all. But a few paces further and she starts the open-mouthed gagging behavior that means—yes, she’s throwing up–as a warning or out of nervousness or just to tell me how she feels about being taken out, it’s hard to say. If we leave it on the ground, the vomit is not only going to draw flies but will smell worse and worse until it will be noticeable all over the area. “I hate to ask you this,” I say to the volunteer, “but would you go get a surgical glove?” and she does, the intrepid young soul—she comes back with one blue nitrile hand, gamely picks up the tart-sized wad of indistinguishably-digested something, and she pops back to leave it in the mew, where Remi will be happy to re-consume it later. The smell is acrid and pungent, but now it will dissipate, at least from here.
The ph of a vulture’s digestive system is just one notch or so above battery acid, another wonder of these fabulous birds: diseased carcass goes in one end of the vulture, hits those juices, and comes out neutralized. Vultures have been proven to eradicate botulism, cholera, anthrax, rabies, and possibly even ebola. In the US, vultures are in no way endangered, but in Africa and India the use of new poisons has killed off large numbers of their vulture species and the surrounding populations of humans and farm animals are paying the price: these diseases have recurred to chronic proportions. (African Vultures Declining at a Critical Rate: http://www.peregrinefund.org/news-release/321).
When I take the Princess to a classroom, I can tell them all of this. I can explain that while she may seem strange and off-putting to the unschooled eye, to those of us who have considered her design, she’s walking brilliance. The Bacteria Stops Here.
This past spring, I took the vulture, and one of our beautiful owls, to a group of third grade classes in a small school district. The kids gasped when they saw the owl, and made all the appropriate groans when I described the attributes of the vulture, and they asked great questions about each—and we talked about how each of these creatures contributes to the ecosystem—the owl keeping down the population of rats and mice, the vulture working as habitat sanitation.
At the end of the program, as I was putting the birds into their crates while the classes lined up to exit, a small cluster of kids stuck with me, asking more questions, telling me stories. Then from the line of students heading out the door one little girl broke away and ran over—a pretty little dark-haired girl in a pink dress. “At home?” she said, “we have a Morkie—that’s a Maltese and a Yorkie mix?” I nodded. “Her name is Princess,” she said brightly. “But now, I’m going to call her Princess Remington!” She grinned, and she darted back to join her classmates. On the drive back to the shelter my associate and I had a fine time considering this little girl who decided to rename her fluffy white lap dog after our turkey vulture.
The Princess and I spent nearly an hour in the sun today, in the middle of a patch of strawberries and rose bushes beginning to fade with the season. She had her wings extended with one across my back, and someone commented that it looked like a strange sort of date. Other volunteers walked by and chatted, which she does actually enjoy: we can’t release her, but we can offer her our own community, whatever it’s worth.
At programs, we try to convey to the audience or the students that having these creatures in our area is a sign of good things—great things. Wildlife, no matter how odd or off-putting, tells us that our region is healthy. It isn’t the case any longer that we live in human communities surrounded by wilderness; more and more of the world is expanses of suburbia encircling smaller and smaller areas of wild. Some wild creatures have managed to adapt to human habitation—peregrines on top of skyscrapers, coyotes in the alleys of cities, hawks in city parks, eagles returning to waterways. Others need more attention, and all the balances needs to be checked. Maintaining their habitat, caring for these creatures will make a difference—to children and grandchildren and little girls with fluffy white dogs and every bit of this interconnected planet.