August 1, 2009

Suburbitat: Buzzards in the Hood. ~ by Jim Tolstrup.

Suburbitat: A Suburban Naturalist’s JournalBuzzards in the Hood

On most summer evenings my wife and I sit on our patio having dinner while we watch the turkey vultures heading home. A vulture looks a lot like an eagle, but vultures hold their wings up in a “V” shape and always look a bit tipsy, as if they haven’t quite gotten the hang of flying yet.

In fact it’s quite the opposite: vultures can fly for hours, soaring effortlessly on warm breezes, without ever flapping a wing. When vultures fly around in a circle, it’s called a kettle. A kettle does not necessarily mean there is something dead below—contrary to popular belief, vultures do not circle around dying animals (or people.) The vultures are simply catching the thermals, and circling lifts them higher and higher.

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is 25 to 32 inches long, weighs about six pounds and has a six foot wingspan. Male and female vultures are indistinguishable; brown in color with a reddish, bald  head.Vultures live in all but the coldest parts of the United States, and migrate to warmer climates in winter.

Vultures are nature’s trash collectors. They eat carrion (rotting carcasses) and in so doing they provide a valuable service by cleaning up our environment. Recently I was walking by the river and found a dead beaver. A few minutes later I saw a vulture heading west. The vulture made an abrupt 45 degree turn and headed straight for the dead beaver, guided by the smell. Vultures also eat plant material (reportedly they are fond of pumpkins.)

Vultures have made many adaptations that help protect them from the bacteria that they pick up in their line of work—such as their bald heads, which help to keep them clean. They also have a few odd habits, such as urinating on their own legs. This cools them down and also help to kill bacteria. Vultures are often seen perched in trees in “horaltic pose” with wings outspread. This pose helps to warm the body, dry the wings and allows the sun to bake off bacteria on their feathers.

When vultures are frightened, they often regurgitate the contents of their stomachs. There may be several reasons for this. Regurgitation reduces their weight so they can fly away. It may also be a defense; their stomach acid is extremely caustic and can cause burns.

Aside from their seemingly rude habits and fearsome appearance, vultures are quite unaggressive and community-oriented. In fact, vultures are the paragon of sustainable community. They don’t kill or destroy anything, preferring to live on what the world offers them freely and when they find something good they don’t keep it to themselves—they alert their friends so that they can all share it.

In many ways vultures live life like Buddhist monks and nuns, taking only what is offered, refraining from harming others, providing service and practicing equanimity, wherein a rotting corpse is viewed as a sumptuous feast. Perhaps for this reason vultures are considered sacred among the Buddhist cultures of the Tibetan Plateau.

When our friend Cassell (a Buddhist) was on a long solitary retreat, she needed vulture feathers to perform a “long life” meditation practice. Her husband Karl asked me if I knew where to find vulture feathers. I was amused that I was the first person he thought of who might know where to find vulture feathers, as much as he was amused when I returned 15 minutes later with a fistful of them.

In my neighborhood, there are four large spruce trees growing close together. These have become a favorite roosting spot for 30 or more vultures who return every night and soar off again each morning.

When I went to photograph the vultures, a woman in her mid-twenties who lives below the vulture roost came out of her house. “Isn’t that crazy?” she said, as we watched the vultures soaring in.  I asked her what it’s like living with vultures. She said “they’re okay, they’re kind of cool but they make a mess of our cars and when it rains, they really stink.”

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org

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