Radical Gratitude: The Marvelously Macabre

A Day of the Dead display, courtesy of Nature.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Here in Wine Country, the chamber of commerce vibe is all about joie de vivre, shopping and feasting and, of course, wine. So it’s an ironic counterpoint to the general frivolity that the bird we see most often around here is the turkey vulture. Personally, I am quite fond of them.

Turkey vultures are hardly unique to Napa Valley where I live. They have an enormous range, from the tip of South America to southern Canada, if you include the breeding grounds to which some of them migrate seasonally. But they’re permanent residents in the U.S., where they are an enormously successful and valuable member of a variety of ecosystems. Personally, I’m quite fond of them.

Perhaps you do not share my enthusiasm for these looming, sepulchral harbingers of death. But just think what the landscape would look like if they weren’t on the job, cleaning up everything from dead grasshoppers to road-kill deer. We’d be up to our armpits in yuck.

Now, right in tune with the Day of the Dead weekend, these big birds with their suitably funereal plumage and bald, blood-colored heads have begun greeting the day as they prefer to when the mornings grow cooler.

Atop the stakes that support the grapevines or among the leafless branches of dead trees (of course), groups of vultures pose motionless, their broad delta-shaped wings spread. The effect is both creepy and humorous, and always makes me smile. In a shivery kind of way.

Turkey vultures don’t do this just to be atmospheric. Their sunning posture may have several functions, including drying their wings after a damp night, warming themselves, and baking off microorganisms. Being connoisseurs of carrion, they’re bound to come in contact with a lot of bacteria.

Not a fan yet? Consider these fun facts about turkey vultures (some of which I recall from my time as a docent with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, and some of which I rediscovered through Wikipedia):

Unlike most other birds, turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell.

It’s weird to think about, but most birds don’t really have a sense of smell to speak of. Turkey vultures are an exception, with a fair amount of real estate in their brains devoted to an olfactory lobe that allows them to sniff out the beginnings of decay in dead critters far below them as they soar in their characteristic wavering circles.

They don’t go in for truly putrified flesh, preferring the recently dead. But their un-feathered heads allow them to plunge into a nice, fresh, reeking body cavity and yank off the yummy bits without getting gore in their coifs.

Turkey vultures have antiseptic saliva.

Their spit kills germs, which is why they can eat carrion without getting sick. Isn’t that cool?

Still not entranced? How about this:

Turkey vultures have a handy way of cooling themselves.

To avoid getting overheated the big birds moisten their featherless legs and feet and take advantage of the resultant evaporation. Elegant, no? Maybe their method — pooping on their own legs — isn’t terribly glamorous. But it’s certainly effective.

The turkey vulture takes an inventive approach to self-defense.

Being large and frankly intimidating, adult turkey vultures don’t have many natural predators. But their fledglings may fall prey to great horned owls, hawks, or eagles, and raccoons and opossums sometimes go after their eggs and nestlings.

When threatened, a vulture will barf up semi-digested meat, which since it was decaying even before the vulture ate it, now smells so bad that it will put off pretty much any varmint intent on raiding a vulture nest. Also the puke stings if it gets into the offender’s face or eyes.

Occasionally a predator such as a coyote will try going after an adult vulture. If it has recently fed, the bird will swiftly empty its crop of whatever it just swallowed in order to take off and fly away, leaving behind, I have no doubt, a permanently grossed-out coyote.

Have I not sold you yet? Well, there’s this:

Turkey vultures are very, very quiet.

They are social creatures, but they don’t sing or scream or squawk or even cluck. Lacking a syrinx, which is the bird equivalent of a voice box, the most sound a turkey vulture can summon is a low hiss when perturbed, or a sort of grunt when in the midst of a mating display.

We’ve all known guys like that, right?

Turkey vultures lack the gripping talons of raptors like hawks and eagles, and they have to struggle mightily to get airborne from the ground. But once in the air, they are majestic, masterful soaring marvels, riding thermal drafts in what looks like nearly effortless flight.

Seeing a flock of them gathering and wheeling in the sky is a sight that can’t help but raise both admiration and the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. They serve as evidence of the transitory nature of life, soaring reminders to dwell in the present moment.

And seeing them hanging out in a dead tree, wings outstretched, looking so Day-of-the-Dead appropriate? Well, that is a sight for which I am grateful.

Want to join my Radical Gratitude month-long challenge and find what small or large miracle each day has to offer this month? Check out my previous story in this vein (pun intended):

Writer & educator. The Startup, Writing Cooperative, P.S. I Love You, The Ascent, more. Award-winning short fiction. Visit me at www.JanMFlynn.net.

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