The turkey vultures have come to feast.
It took three days. But they’re here now in full force. And it’s been quite the party. They circle low and Mango loves chasing them. Even the horse down in the corral down the way became excited. Our neighbor came over and was wondering what had gotten under his skin – he was prancing and snorting, his tail held high. The vultures, however, had been circling and feeding for much of the morning. In addition to the impression of their tremendous mass, what feelings do they incite in other species? The horse was clearly unnerved.
What other conjecture do the birds summon?
- They are patient, keen observers. The splayed open body of the raccoon rested on the roof of the chicken house for two days before I noticed the first flyover. It was near dusk and two vultures flew slowly over the chicken house, circled once and continued on their way. They waited another two days before they began to work the body. I wonder how much they observed before they decided it was safe to eat? And do they use the close flyovers to test the animal to see if it’s still alive? Living creatures tend to run and bolt at the flyovers.
- They have at least some semblance of cognition and work their food. They didn’t feed on the roof. Instead one of the birds lifted the raccoon corpse off the roof and moved it 7 feet to a spot on the ground where they could easily circle and rest while picking at the flesh. They ate the first side of the raccoon on the first evening. The next morning they rotated his body a full 180 degrees to more easily get at his other side. Later I moved the remains and hanging entrails to the tree outside our house. Within hours they had removed the body from the tree and once again were working it on the ground just outside our dining room window. Do they have a set routine in how they will dismember and eat an animal?
- They may be highly social animals that work collaboratively. So far I’ve seen a primary pair that are sometimes accompanied by a third. Only one bird eats at a time. The other two either perch in the tree, on the backs of the garden furniture, or sit on the ground. In all instances they face outward toward the open meadow, watching it seems for any advancing threats. This morning when the neighbors pit approached from the meadow, the feeding raven stopped and joined the other two gazing outward. As the pit advanced, the birds slowly took flight. Two of the birds seemed to have disappeared for the day, while one remained in the tree. When my friend Danny walked outside, the bird descended from the tree and circled the carrion raccoon as if protecting it. Was the bird guarding the food? Or was it taking flight in self-defense? How do they communicate? How are responsibilities divided among the group? Is their a pecking hierarchy?
- They may have an acute sense of hearing. I was watching the birds with binoculars from our dining room window. At some point my cellphone sitting on the far side of the room in the kitchen chirped when an email came in. The turkey vulture outside and 10 feet from the house started and looked up in my direction. I know for certain that I would not have been able to hear the phone from outside the house. How to test their audial and visual acuity?
- They can quickly discern friend from foe and react accordingly. The first few times I walked outside in their presence they were startled and flew away. They watched, however, when I retrieved the raccoon and relocated it. And they also watched a couple times as I walked in and out of the house without bothering them. It only took a couple passes before they became accustomed to my presence and ignored me. Mango with all his bark and scampering on the other hand, is another story.
- Their necks and beaks may have adapted to small prey. Watching the vulture pick flesh with it’s beak, I thought of the vultures on the Mara. The birds there have long extensible necks that they thrust deep into the chest cavities of the wildebeest, elephants, or whatever other megafauna they feed on. North America hasn’t had megafauna for at least 15,000 years and nothing on the scale of what was in Africa. Did different carrion birds evolve different beak and neck structures that would allow them to feed on different kinds of animals? Have carrion birds evolved different strategies for dismembering corpses? I would imagine that an adult vulture has a far keener understanding of raccoon anatomy than I do. They’ve undoubtedly feasted on dozens of roadkill.
There you have it. Twenty minutes of observation and six questions.
And I haven’t even planted the garden bulbs. Or assembled the apiary.