Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Garbage Collectors from the Sky
Most evenings as I cross the Potomac River I see them lazily wheeling in the distant sky. One, two, a dozen, and seeming to never flap their outstretched six foot wingspan, as they ride on the thermals. They can soar for hours, with their wings in a dihedral (V-shape), waiting for others to join, before feasting on a large fresh roadkill below.
From a distance, Turkey Vultures are graceful and beautiful, with silvery white flight feathers and “finger” tips that add to their splendor. If you are lucky you might come upon one standing high on a perch in a spread-winged stance called the “horaltic pose” looking much like the top of a totem pole. Even though I know they are just drying their wings, warming their bodies and baking off bacteria, it is still hard not to believe they have mythical powers and I should bow my head to honor them. But when I observe more closely and see their wrinkled, red, featherless necks and heads, I’m a little put off. You see, they are designed for practicality not beauty. The bald head keeps the bacteria and unwanted bits of their messy diet from sticking to feathers as they eat. They prefer fairly fresh meat, especially enjoying herbivores and, occasionally, plants.
At almost any given time of day I can look up and spot a “kettle” of them, ever diligent looking and detecting the scent of carrion. The scientific name for the Cathartes aura is Latin for “cleansing breeze” and suits them well. They are scavengers, unpaid and often not appreciated for their invaluable service. Too bad they don’t eat plastic or aluminum cans. I guess we will have to clean that mess up ourselves. So next time you see the garbage collectors from the sky, offer up your thanks and let your thought soar with them for a moment.
Learn more about Turkey Vultures and why they urinate on their legs at the Turkey Vulture Society Web page. http://vulturesociety.homestead.com/
See more ABC Wednesday posts here.