Issue Thirty-Eight - Summer 2021

Turkey Vultures

By James Hessler

I do my rounds, feeding cattle and horses every morning, on a ranch in the Sierra Foothills in California, north of Yosemite. It is a fight every morning at daybreak, from sleep to consciousness. I’m not naturally a morning person. But still I rise, dress, and go. My captured animals must be fed.

Half asleep, the rounds are routine and boring. Awake, really awake, if I can get there, the early morning is unique and amazing. Here, in this place, at this time, being alert will be rewarded with something interesting, fascinating, exciting, maybe even life changing.

I have seen California quail families with tiny chicks in a long line heading somewhere, all in a row, adults at front and rear. Tiny newborn fawns with their bright white spots venturing out with mom for an early outside experience. A coyote, sitting high on the hill, cutting for sign, as they say, listening, looking, smelling (he hasn’t seen me). A family of raccoons heading up a tree for shelter after a night of foraging. Raindrops on rosebuds. An untouched mantel of snow stretching across an open field, waiting for a traveler’s impression. Low, wispy clouds just beginning to lift from the ground and reveal how their moisture has renewed the shine on the trees.

Today it’s rainy spring. Snow is gone. The sun has just come out, clear and fresh. Shadows are long to the west. The hard rain from the night has just ended. After a few steps down the road, I stand still.

Tiny movements from a committee of turkey vultures floods my vision. There is a pen for cattle 50 yards down the road. The pen is 64 feet square. There are posts 8 feet apart on each side, 28 posts in all. On the top of 25 fence posts, turkey vultures perch. I don’t go closer despite my desire to be right next to these impressive scavengers. I know that if just a single bird sees movement in his peripheral vision, they will all be gone in a moment. I feel like a bird dog on point, frozen in place, looking with all the intensity I can bring, marking each detail in bird, sound, movement, environment.

These turkey vultures are huge birds. Two feet from tip of head to claw, and another foot of tail below the talon on the fence post. The turkey part of the name is evident. The head and face of each raptor look like the turkey snood, like the head has been flayed, exposing the raw flesh underneath. The wings of each bird are spread wide, as in flight. The wing tip feathers resemble the fingers of a long slender black hand, almost touching the extended wing of the next bird. Not quite a Sistine Chapel moment, but with its own grace. The wings glisten with raindrops. The massed image is of a long narrow undulating, black sparkling carpet, stretching along four sides of the pen.

Vulture heads turn from side to side, in a squawking, family style conversation. Full of categorical imperative. Death may be a precursor of their calling. It’s the furthest thing from a wake I’ve ever heard. Maybe in Louisiana.

The sun has just taken over from the hard rain of the night before and it is beginning to warm. The turkey vultures are appreciating the sun, telling stories of the storm, or complaining about the cold and wet of the night. Heads move from side to side, up and down, beaks stretch and snap, but bodies and wings are fixed. Refuting my expectation, the birds do not shake their wings. The raindrops do not budge, appearing to defy gravity, clinging to the outstretched and gently sloping wings. I watch the size of the rain drops slowly diminish. An ethereal steam cloud rises from each bird and disappears in the warming air.

Flayed heads aside, these birds are magnificent. Glistening. A community. Their profession is scavenging. They are good at their job. No wake ever squawked so enthusiastically, dressed so immaculately, glistened with a thousand rainbows reflected in raindrops. Perched, wings spread, they are both huge and graceful. The repulsive ugliness is superficial. The scavenger birds have been engineered to perfection by nature.

I have seen them in the air, wings spread, riding an updraft to gain altitude, time after time, where the on-shore breeze is forced up the low mountains coming together to close off a small valley, marking the transition from foothills to Sierra Mountains. At the apex of the updraft, or when the altitude is just right, the great birds tilt and veer off to start a scouting run. Wings never flap. Heads move from side to side. They might be looking. Bird clichés go to “eagle eye”. But turkey vultures most developed sense is olfactory. They can smell death not yet in sight, perhaps hidden by trees or brush. A target is selected, maybe just a whiff measured in parts per billion, and the bird glides, accelerating with graceful intent, circling to pinpoint. Diving toward carrion. Digesting decomposing flesh. Consuming disease. Cleansing the ecosystem.

Here, gathered at my corral on convenient perches, their bodies are as glorious as we see them in the air. I am unfair to mention only the head, its raw, red flesh and curved beak. I appreciate the wings, almost entirely feather, minimal weight, maximum aerodynamic lift. Stretching from post to post. Small, excellent eyes isolated on each side of the head, each viewing nearly 180 degrees, every direction but forward, separated by a talon sharp beak, hooked down for penetrating and ripping. Behind the finely crafted nostrils and air scoop sits the miniaturized olfactory sensory system of very high precision, able to sample and locate a molecule or two of sulfurous, bacteria infested decomposing flesh hidden in the distance. A marvel of natural selection, millions of years in the making.

It didn’t take long for the water to evaporate off the wing spans. One bird drops its wings and digs into the air like a single sculler, launching into the sky. Then two and three and more. They are all gone in a few seconds. On the hunt again. I’m pleased I witnessed this natural wonder. Thrilled I didn’t interfere.

Copyright 2021 Hessler