|Vulture sculpture by Santa Cruz Mountains metalsmith, Bill Sorich|
This post is about vultures and death as part of my continuing exploration of why the turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are suddenly hanging out on the Dipper Ranch barn. In Vultures and Migration, I pretty much concluded that the local vultures of the central California coast do not migrate in the winter, so that leads me back to death.
In the last few weeks, I found part of a carcass on the road near the corral watering trough that the vultures visit every day.
That is, the vultures visit the trough every day. I never saw them on the carcass although the eyeballs were gone and the skin partially flaked off as if stripped by beaks.
[Please note: this posting includes photos of dead animals. No animals were harmed in creating of this post. Proceed at your own educational risk by pressing Read More.]
A skull, lower jaw and fur-covered deer fragments were scattered about, usually signs of coyotes which tend to rip apart a carcass into defendable pieces and drag them into the bushes where they can gnaw in peace.
|Lower jaw, skull, limb and a vertebrae of black-tailed deer|
|Skull of recently killed black-tailed deer with soft muzzle still attached|
|The dishrag deer - a black-tailed deer with ribs and guts removed|
and pelt twisted around the backbone.
Another week passed, more vulture visits, and I decided to check further upslope. I called my neighbor first, as I would be walking cross country near his property which drives his dogs into a barking frenzy. He too had noticed the vultures hanging out and thought they might have eaten his raspberries which disappeared at about the same time. I've never heard of vultures eating berries, and as I was zigzagging my way to Mindego Hill, it was funny to imagine these hulking dark birds delicately picking away at bright raspberry bushes. I found an old roadbed above Alpine Road, but no more carcasses.
|Turkey vulture feather on the forest floor.|
For weeks, I have been noticing vulture feathers by the three-tub trough on the road up to the high pastures. Recently, as I passed the two senatorian canyon oaks on the steepest part of the road, I looked up and realized that one of the oaks was dead. For two years, its canopy has browned out and large branches have crashed onto the road after storms. I suspected it was infected with Sudden Oak Death, but I preferred to look down for tracks in the mud rather than witness the grand tree's demise. But this fine morning, I looked up and took in all the broken stumps high above the rest of the forest. It was the largest tree and now it was the largest snag. Bees were flying in and out a hole at a branch scar.
Vulture feather stuck in crack of a dead canyon live oak -
possibly succumbing to Sudden Oak Death.
No question, the big oak was finally dead and I scanned its thick trunk for slabs of loosening bark near its flared base, and I reached out to pickup a black feather stuck on its trunk but stopped. Suddenly I realized why I had been seeing all the vulture feathers at this spot. It was a roosting tree, someplace the clan would gather to soak up sun and glean their feathers. With so much downfall, perhaps the forest giant did not bear enough sturdy branches anymore for the clan of 9 vultures.
So back to the original question. Why are the turkey vultures roosting on the barn? Is it seasonal wind patterns, a plentitude of carcasses provided by the local coyotes or a visiting mountain lion, premigration jitters, revised flight patterns as the juveniles come off the nest, change in roosting location, or raspberries? I'm going to go with a change in roosting habits brought about by death of a large oak tree, death with which they are so familiar.
To seal this 4-part series on vultures, I give you a poem by Robinson Jeffers, a poet of the Monterey coast:
I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing, I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you." But how beautiful he'd looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him.
To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.