Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Vulture Tree

Last week, we were in Utah near St. George and Bryce and Zion National Parks. There are a few small towns in this area nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains painted with various shades of red and orange.

I was thrilled to find my familiar friends--lizards, Grackles, and vultures--as well as a new little creature that I still have not identified. It is a small rodent, as small as a chipmunk, but the head looks more like a rat. It's tail flips up over its back. It is very fast and the only pictures I was able to snap off are blurry as it is also exceptionally fast!

We were driving down a side street when I noticed one of the largest venues of vultures I have ever seen. This is one close, happy family! As they slowly circled around the sky, enjoying their play on the warm currents of air, I counted 90 before I lost track.

Then they started to land, one by one. As they flew lower, I could see that they were Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). Turkey Vultures can be found from Canada to South America. Although Turkey Vultures will join with Black Vultures or other scavengers, and allow scavengers to join their families, this family in Utah appeared to be only Turkey Vultures.

I was with my husband, who was driving. We assumed they were landing in a field of dead trees, so we followed in our truck. Their path led us into a residential area, down a few side streets, and in front of a house where a huge, old tree stood on the corner of a property. It was not a dead tree, which is generally preferred by vultures, most likely because of the size of their wings--with a six-foot wing spread it is certainly easier to land on a bare branch. The tree must be hundreds of years old. Five adults, holding hands, might be able to circle its trunk.

We parked the truck and I jumped out with my camera, watching as the vultures circled around and landed, one by one, inside the tree. It was difficult to see them all because of the thick blanket of leaves, but the first ones to fly in landed on the top branches and politely posed for photographs, sometimes spreading their wings wide. Vultures will do this after they have eaten so the sun bakes the flecks of food left on their wings and the food drops to the ground. It is easy to tell if a vulture has eaten recently and had not had the opportunity to dry its wings as clumps of food still cling to the dark feathers, looking like large flecks of dust.

Suddenly, the tree seemed to come alive. As one bird flew in, another was leaving with a constant flow of movement circling the tree. They were silent except for the occasional flapping of wings when one of the birds tried to gain its balance. Once, a vulture flew in from behind and surprised another bird who stumbled forward, lost its grip and fell onto another branch. I thought it was injured at first as it left its wings spread wide. One wing appeared to be snagged on a branch. Eventually, though, the bird hopped to the right and freed its wing, then closed them tight against its side.

We spoke with one of the neighbors who said they were not happy with the birds in the local community. Apparently, the venue of 100 or more vultures had used that same tree for resting purposes every night for many years. Apparently, the neighbors are concerned that the urine from the vultures falling to the ground is creating an unsanitary condition in the neighborhood. I tried to explain that the urine of Turkey Vultures is so sterile it could be used as an antiseptic, and started to explain that they pee on their legs to sterilize their legs after eating, but I began to suspect this might be too much information for someone who is obviously not crazy about vultures!

In many communities, vultures are recognized as nature's cleaning crew, keeping the community free of disease. In fact, scientists have discovered that the vulture's stomach acid is so sanitizing it will even destroy anthrax when vultures consume animals that have died from this disease.

Regardless of their appearance, and their reputation unfairly gained from their use in horror films, Turkey Vultures, and their habitats, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, so it's best just to let them do their job as God intended. Should they decide to move into your neighborhood, either leave them alone, or admire them for the important role they place in the circle of life.

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