Shiva and the Turkey Vulture
“Vultures are one of the few bird species that are afraid of their own dead.
But only if they’re hung at the roost site.
If you hang them anywhere else then they’ll eat them.”
On most days off I take my dog up across the Ridges behind Westwood Lake. When Shiva sees my heavy socks come out, she starts bouncing around on the cedar deck like a drunken wallaby, in canine appreciation that we will soon be off on another special pilgrimage. I pack my water bottle, Italian rosewood mushroom knife, and a Milkbone into my daypack, and open the garage door. Shiva careens around the truck, and I have to fend her off from licking the nose off my face, while I try to tie up the laces on my hiking boots. She does this little rotational dance first in one direction, then another, like a honey bee waggle dance, chiding me, in more and more urgent vocalizations, to hurry up. Time is short if you have so many odours waiting, and every year is really seven.
By the time I stand up again and reach for my walking stick, she is nearly apoplectic with anticipation. On some later occasion I’ll tell you even more about Shiva. Eventually I’ll also take you more slowly along the Ridges. Today, you need to know about the vulture.
We first encountered the vulture (or maybe he found us) one early spring day, while trekking across the second Ridge. The trailhead was an hour behind us. The manzanita was in full bloom, with pink and white bell flowers, and the sun was throwing emeralds on the wet moss lining the rock path, in a grove of rusty arbutus trees. For a brief moment the light cut out, and we heard a hiss of pinion feathers slide above us. I looked up and was suddenly blinded by the brightness coming back on. And then I saw it, first as a slowly sailing coffin size shadow in my peripheral vision, and then, as it really was- a carrion airship, thermal-riding down to eye level with Shiva, who sat motionless returning the interest. The monster bird wobbled from side to side, like Shiva did in the garage. I wondered what kind of exchange was really happening at a molecular level, between my dog’s twitching black nose and the olfactory messages reaching into the Turkey vulture’s brain, most of which is devoted only to finding death. It was the mother of all mass spectroscopic battles. Shiva has 220 million olfactory receptors compared to my 5 million. The Turkey vulture (Cathartesis aura meridionalis) is able to detect dead animals below a forest canopy, by finding just a whiff of ethyl mercapten, a foul breakdown gas of putrefaction. And I do mean a whiff. If humans are able to perceive 2.8 parts per billion in air (which is why it is injected into propane and butane to make container leaks more detectable), imagine what our six foot wide hovering hyena can smell. Small amounts of ethyl mercapten are also components of normal human breath, the knowledge of which certainly made me want to hold mine. Ethyl mercapten also prevents the growth of tuberculosis bacteria, a handy thing to have around, if most of your primi piatti are rotten beyond recognition. The Turkey vultures’ bald heads enable them to enjoy this carrion collation from the inside out, without anything adhering to their unfeathered scalps. If their digestion is disturbed, what they regurgitate is so acidic, it can be used as a defensive weapon. Even the babies are able to projectile vulture vomit a full 6 feet. Just to complete the cuteness imagery, Turkey vultures defecate on their own legs, to cool them down in hot weather. This also coats them with uric acid, a fine antiseptic.
Their most brilliant adaptation, however, is the ability to fly so effortlessly. They can float for six hours without a single wing flap. Aircraft pilots have reported them at 20,000 feet. When they migrate from Vancouver Island to Central America they often cover 300 kilometers a day (and survive in environments ranging from deserts to jungles). They can dive at 100 kilometres per hour. All this comes out of a three pound airmail package with a six foot wingspan. A colleague of mine is metaphor mad about soaring with eagles, but he doesn’t get it. Eagles are not only less well adapted, they are known to follow Turkey vultures to take advantage of where they find the thermals. Besides, vultures have much more interesting social interactions, among themselves and with us. As solitary as we usually find them, they do come together in various vulture venues. A wake is a group of perched vultures, so named for their heads hung down as if in mourning. At dawn you can find them all with their wings spread out in the ‘horaltic pose’ (after the Egyptian god of the morning sun, Horus). It was thought that this posture was designed to increase their body temperature after cool nights, but it is more likely that the vultures are sensing winds and currents, checking their instruments pre-flight. When they finally take off collectively into the thermal updrafts, vultures form kettles, spiralling upward into clusters, like water boiling in a pot.
The vulture’s most prominent interaction with humans, of course, is in death. It’s scientific name, Cathartesis aura, is Latin for ‘cleansing breeze’ (from the Greek cathartes, meaning ‘purifier’). Our ancestral observation, that a human corpse can be completely stripped by vultures within two hours, has evolved into a practice of ritual exposure in at least two Asian cultures. The Tibetans have a long tradition of sky burial. They believe that vultures are angels or Dakinis (sky dancers). Heaven is thought to be a windswept landscape, where souls wait for reincarnation into their next lives. The sky burial is an act of Buddhist generosity (jhator), a gift of human flesh to vultures that might otherwise have eaten other, smaller lives. This virtue was apparently demonstrated by Buddha, who once fed a hawk with a piece of his own leg, to save the life of a pigeon. When a Tibetan dies, monks chant around the body for three days. Om mane padme hum. The day before his sky burial, his corpse is cleaned, wrapped in white cloth, and bent into the fetal position he was born in. Before dawn the next morning, lamas chant in procession to the charnel ground, leading the soul of the dead with their intonations. Body breakers unwrap the gift. Hatchets and cleavers are brought out quickly, to crush bones and cut up organs and flesh into small pieces. Juniper incense is lit, and the remains of the deceased, mixed with tsampa barley porridge, are spread out over the ground.
When the vultures are finally allowed to land, they are, in the proper order, fed the splintered bone mixture, the organs, and then the flesh, to assure ascent of the soul into Heaven.
The other religion that employs vultures to recycle its dead came out of ancient Persia, now Iran. Zoroastrians considered earth, water and fire sacred, and not to be defiled by the dearly departed. High in their Towers of Silence, these communities of fire-worshippers practiced their Dakhma ritual exposure to the vultures. Iranian adherants had been persecuted by the Islamic expansion but Zorastrian colonies still exist in India, especially around Mumbai. Unfortunately for the ritual, most of the vultures have been killed off by inadvertent poisoning with diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory used in treating sick livestock), to which their kidneys are exquisitely sensitive. Even with the influx of snakes and crows and the use of solar panels to aid decomposition, Parsi caracasses are piling up.
“Our last act of charity was with the vulture. That’s the tradition that we have grown up to follow and that tradition has come under threat. When you look at most cultures, the vulture’s seen as a scavenger, in a very negative light, whereas to us the vulture’s a religious bird because it’s…performing a religious service.”
Shiva also has connections to death. Robyn and I have always named our dogs after Hindu deities (they would at least see the humour in it). Kali was our first dog, Shiva the second. She is called after Nataraja, the cosmic dancer who performs a divine dance to destroy a weary universe, and prepare the path for the process of creation. The dance releases the souls of men from the snare of illusion. In Judaism, Shiva (seven) is a week-long period of grief and mourning for the seven first-degree relatives- father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. Like Jewish mourners, our Shiva has her food supplied and does not bathe for pleasure, an observation that anyone that has tried to approach her with a hose will attest to (an understatement).
Every Spring, we look for the Vulture when we’re on the second ridge. When it happens, Shiva and I always feel his presence before we see him soar by. Once he landed and sat for a moment beside us, spread-winged and magnificent- if he had sunglasses on, he could have been the Jack Nicholson of Turkey Vultures. Eagles would have bowed and averted their eyes. Shiva lay down with her head between her front paws. For just a snapshot in time there was a glimmer of interspecies recognition passing on an evolutionary offramp. They looked, locked, and looked away. The vulture dropped off the ridge. Shiva and I were suddenly alone again, on the top of the world.
“Part of me is noting the shallow V of the wings, the dihedral position that distinguishes the Turkey Vulture, even from miles away. Part of me is wondering what great dead animal this flock was settled upon a few minutes ago. Part of me is curious where the birds are off to, whether to roost in the trees by the river or nest in the shelter of the hills. But most of me is just standing here under a near-dark moon, watching what ought to be an omen of death and gloom, with a great big grin on my face. Their eyes shining in the dim light, their voices the fierce whispers of childhood delight, my sons are with me. I bird. They bird. We bird.”