Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Vultures & Death

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
It was odd to see the soft black pad remaining on the nostrils; usually the delicate premaxillary bones have been snapped off by the time I see a deer carcass.  I often check the deer carcasses reported in the preserves to determine if they are possible mountain lion kills, and usually those muzzles are bitten off before the rest of the body has been devoured by either coyotes or mountain lions.  I hang antlers and deer skulls on a small buckeye tree in the Dipper picnic area, and most of those deer skulls have jagged muzzles.

Skull of recently killed black-tailed deer with soft muzzle still attached
With skin, fur, even some eyebrows and flesh still attached, I figured these bones had been stripped only a few days ago, so I searched the hill above the corral for the rest of the carcass.  I was curious if this was indeed a new kill, or if it was the divided spoils of a deer carcass I found at the right springbox in June.  That was a puzzling carcass I referred to as the dishrag deer.  The head and legs were mostly intact and attached to the spine, but the midbody organs and ribs were gone.  The skin was twisted around the backbone like when you wring out a dishrag.  I figured that after a predator had cracked off the ribs, eaten out the belly area, and left to digest its meal, the carcass must have rolled downhill.  Tumbling head and legs on each end of the body twisted the skin of the de-ribbed midsection around the spine.

The dishrag deer  -  a black-tailed deer with ribs and guts removed
and pelt twisted around the backbone.
At the time, the way the carcass was not torn apart except the gutted belly, and the fact that all the ribs were cracked off made me think the dishrag deer was possibly killed by a mountain lion rather than coyotes.  On my vulture quest, I found the dishrag deer still in the bushes where I had previously kicked it away from the springbox, so this made two deer carcasses in the same general area in 3 months.  I nervously scanned the canopy of the oaks on the steep hill above the springbox remembering the Los Trancos lion dozing off its meal in a tree in February.

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 vultures hanging out along the Dipper drive.
Sometimes they quarrel over who gets to sit on which post.

The vultures continued to visit even though the last carcass was stripped of flesh and I couldn't spot or smell any additional carcasses.  I checked to see if there was anything dead in the vacant sections of the barn.  A few months ago, one of our rangers checked an unoccupied house on a property we had recently bought and found a person had sadly hung himself there.  I was glad to only find rat poop and bunny tunnels in the old Dipper stables.
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.

Ok, I'm done with vultures for now.

Black vultures on airboat at Myakka River State Park, Florida


  1. I am very happy I found your blog! I lived in the Santa Cruz Mountain for almost 30 years and enjoy visiting again through your blog. Thank you for your posts and photos!

  2. Thanks, Callie. I just checked your blog and enjoyed the wreaths and "dreaming about quilt blocks". I hope to have time one day to make more things. For now, I spend my free time watching and writing about nature. Just tonight, I saw 8 vultures and a hawk circling up a thermal over the neighboring hill. I did a little jig - "The vultures are still here!" because I am getting reports of 400 vultures flying over a spot in the Central Valley in a recent day.

  3. Hi Cindy, it's Blinky! I don't know if you remember me asking you about a *gianormous* bird that I saw while hiking in Edgewood, close to 2 years ago now. At the time, I could've sworn it as a condor, but as more time passed, I realize that I was probably just so stunned by the proximity of that giant black, smelly bird. It was most likely a vulture. I've never been that close to one again, sadly. (well, maybe not so sadly for my sense of smell)

  4. How could I have forgotten the mention of a "gianormous" bird? Maybe if you said "glamnormous". If you could smell it, you were close. The joke has been that you can tell the difference between a vulture and condor in flight because the condors all have large numbered tags on them. However, a few vultures are being tagged for migration studies, so it's not so accurate or funny anymore. I hope we don't get carried away with marking birds. I have a premonition that one day I will see a condor fly over the Santa Cruz Mountains when I am pulling yellow starthistle. I hope you are with me when it happens. Pull on!


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