Celebrate Vultures

Chick Keller
January 2002

The explorers were moving slowly across the desert in the hot sun when they saw the tell-tale sign of buzzards circling in the sky ahead of them. Half an hour later they came upon the grisly scene--a man, nearly dead, crawling in the sand perhaps days without water, now surrounded by the waiting birds, ready to peck out his eyes and tear his lifeless body to shreds. With righteous revulsion, the men fired their rifles and the cowardly birds took flight, but only to a dead tree nearby where they perched, waiting patiently, hunched over in that characteristic, macabre pose of "buzzards" the world over.

This is how I first came to know vultures. This movie image is sometimes all that many people have of these timid, beautiful, but largely misunderstood creatures. Walking up the Devaney Trail above the Skating Rink on a cool, sunny morning, I topped out on the canyon rim and rounded a bend to see a dead ponderosa pine with several Turkey Vultures sunning themselves, looking as sleepy as I was. They eyed me warily when I stopped to gaze up at them, turning their bright red heads to regard me balefully. As I watched, they seemed to take offense at having their early morning invaded. "Who is this person, impolitely staring at us? Why doesn't he have the common decency to just pass by?" They shifted their weight uncomfortably and opened one wing to the breeze. Then, since I impertinently continued watching them, their bodies hunched over, the great black wings spread, and, with only one or two sweeping wingflaps to get started, they launched out onto the morning air. As these great birds, most expert of nature's gliders, drifted across the canyon to catch the first rising thermals of the new day, I could easily see the characteristic V shape their wings make with their bodies and their equally characteristic tippy flight which looks so unsteady but which signals their expert sensing of every nuance in the air movement around them. They never flapped wings again but circled ever higher until they were a thousand feet above their ponderosa perch. I resumed my walk to work with heart and soul equally buoyed and soaring.

I was aware that I had just "celebrated vultures" and not just any vultures. These are Los Alamos' own. There, just up from the skating rink stands a particularly tall white fir tree. You can see it easily from the Omega Bridge, for its limbs seem whiter than the other trees. This is because it is the night roost for 20 to 50 of these wonderful birds. After sunset the thermals that have kept them aloft all day give way to a cool river of air flowing down canyon. Against that flow they come, low over the bridge, aiming for that tree, flapping now and then against the tide until they alight for the night. The last stragglers cause a comical commotion as they try to shoulder their way onto already occupied limbs. With much flapping of wings others are displaced--literally knocked into the air--and have to find another perch, which in turn disturbs others until finally all are settled for the night.

Driving across the bridge you can sometimes see fifty vultures in a great group circling to gain altitude. Once high in the air, they drift off in all directions looking for breakfast. The recurring question of whether they find food by sight or smell has recently been answered by a series of ingenious experiments, and it is both, for they combine excellent sight with a highly developed sense of smell. Along with ravens and coyotes these birds perform an invaluable service keeping our world clear of dead and decaying creatures--from an old elk who last night lay down to end its days to a young, energetic squirrel transformed in an instant into what we euphemistically call roadkill.

Because vultures eat carrion, their heads are devoid of feathers. This hygienic adaptation makes them look pretty ugly to us at first sight. (For this reason Kathleen Ramsey has named her vulture--unable to fly due to an injured wing--SOL, or Short On Looks.) Maybe you'll get to see SOL on Earth Day if the Wildlife Center volunteers bring up their injured raptors.

In the fall, after gracing our airways throughout the summer, our vultures begin to drift south for the winter. But as the sun returns north and the weather warms, we begin looking for their return since it is a sure sign of spring. With the warming climate this date is moving ever earlier in the year from April well into March. It is with considerable excitement that we see the first tipsily-soaring traveler return. We feel very fortunate that these shy creatures have chosen to roost in our town and grace our air.