Read Old Man Scanlon

Vulture Love

18 August 2013

turkey vulture

Twenty or so years ago Disney World introduced me to vultures, for which I thank them. Aside from a poorly-suppressed recurring nightmare starring Space Mountain, that's all I remember of the whole painstakingly orchestrated Disney experience—probably not the take-away impression its perpetrators had designed for. As far as I'm concerned, Disney World is yet another major reason to avoid setting foot in Florida. You are welcome to call me a communist, but vultures were the place's only redeeming feature.

Every morning Cheryl and I would see dozens of vultures perched outside our hotel catching the early sun, hunchbacked, shoulders shrugged, exactly as every cartoonist caricatures them. We got up close to them on the ground when we toured one of Disney World's swamp-based attractions. They are ugly, spastic and menacing on foot, and they stink. Love came only at second sight, after I got past those pesky cosmetic issues. All I needed to do was see them on the wing, and they had my heart. A soaring vulture is in its element, a creature of consummate grace; off the ground and defying gravity, it is no longer ugly.

Even having fallen in love with the essence of the bird, it's still hard to get by the unremitting diet of putrid carrion. However, I believe that our revulsion is an artificial social construct, and I wear my ribbon to promote carrion awareness. I keep meat in my refrigerator for weeks that other people would discard after a day or two, and I cement my solidarity with my vulturine brethren by ostentatiously ignoring all food-package expiration dates.

Cheryl's former employer, a corporate behemoth whose logo was known as the "Death Star," had sent her organization on that trip to Disney World as a reward for achieving their sales quota. But in a stroke of divine justice they swiftly atoned for it, and then some, by sending her office on a team-building junket to a Victorian resort in the Catskills. This mountain house and its grounds appear to be under the aegis of a Ring of Power. It presides in homely golden majesty over a lake, at the end of a two-mile driveway through the woods and up the mountain, discreetly marked by signs: "Slowly and quietly, please." Its two hundred fifty-nine rooms brook no televisions. And best of all, it turns out to be prime territory for both turkey vultures and black vultures, who've been expanding their range north.

Cheryl and I have returned there on our own many times over the past couple of decades. This is the fourth summer that we bring with us to the mountain house our grandchildren and niece, now teens well able to appreciate the place. We don't hide the fact that we hope it will become an enduring family tradition, though of course it's foolish to try to micromanage the destinies of young lives. We all hike to one of my favorite places on Earth, a Shawangunk ridge top a few hundred feet above the Rondout Valley looking out toward the Catskills, amusing ourselves with lame jokes about how the vultures are waiting for us to drop dead of a climb-induced heart attack or to dash ourselves to pieces over the edge of the cliff. The birds do not disappoint. They are always there, patrolling the ridge line.

It is such a simple thing, but I take unseemly pleasure in being able to watch vultures from above. I gaze over the valley. I can see for miles. A vulture soars, racing before the stiff northwest breeze and in front of me comes about in a leisurely-executed yet precise U-turn; I can barely perceive the motion of his wingtips and tail. For two heartbeats he is dead still in the air, until he leans in and shoots up, just off the vertical. They never, ever, disappoint.

If I'd spent any effort at all I'd have understood long ago the true basis of my affinity for vultures. During our time at the resort my niece diligently recorded several gigabytes of digital stills and video, giving vultures their due. The single relaxed wing-stroke she captured on video shocked me, so little did I expect it. They are even lazier than I am, paragons of ergonomic economy, preternaturally sparing in their energy expenditure. My rule has always been that it's ridiculous to profess to have just one favorite wine or book or bird, but I'll make an exception for the vulture.