Verner: Have a bone to pick with vultures?

  • Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 11:03 a.m.

I’d never thought of myself as roadkill until the turkey vultures started sizing me up.

Initially, I figured the big birds — intent on deconstructing a possum carcass in the road — were assessing whether I was friend, foe or perhaps hungry competitor for the carrion on the pavement. But as half a dozen bald, red heads slowly pivoted to scrutinize my approach, it occurred to me that they might well be evaluating my caloric content, weighing just how many meals would be forthcoming if they got lucky and a speeding garbage truck came over the rise and wiped me out. More meat than a possum, they probably concluded, but less than a cow.

Providing buzzard sustenance was not an unpleasant thought to entertain on a sunny morning as I took a stroll through the neighborhood. I’m already signed up to be an organ donor, but why stop with eyes, kidneys, lungs and a heart or liver? Might as well go whole hog, so to speak, and let nature turn the last rites into last bites.

That’s basically what happens in the Parsi Towers of Silence (which I first encountered via John Irving’s “A Son of the Circus”) or the Tibetan “sky burial,” wherein the human corpse lies exposed on some lonely mountain top or plateau, and predatory birds consume the remains. The American casket lobby would never allow it here, of course. In fact, given recent state legislative trends, some of our hawkeyed lawmakers may already be at work on a resolution banning sky burials in North Carolina and declaring Buddhism a terrorist religion. A pity — the vulture vote would highly approve of that funerary option.

People have stuffy ideas about death and its sanitized rituals, just as they have stultified opinions regarding vultures, which are widely deplored as nasty creatures that feast on rotting meat. (Actually, they prefer fresher carcasses, but — like latecomers to a potluck supper — tend to be highly adaptable to whatever leftovers are within their foraging range.)

Admittedly, vultures aren’t the most charismatic of creatures. They’re graceful when aloft, but wobbling about on the ground or hunched on a limb, they resemble feathered footballs to which someone haphazardly attached a head. They are, however, among the most beneficial birds, as I was reminded while observing how tidily the neighborhood crew took care of the aforementioned roadkill over a couple of days. All I could find on a subsequent stroll were a few tufts of fur. Even the bones were gone, although their removal probably came via a raccoon or neighborhood dog. Compare that efficiency with the culinary debris that goes in the garbage after a typical human meal. Who’s the messier creature — us or them?

Just as we tend ignore the people who pick up our garbage, sweep our streets, clean our offices (often in the evening or at night, after everyone has gone home) or staff our landfills, we don’t think much about vultures. When we do think about them, it’s usually with a wrinkle-nosed shudder. Even worse than this anti-buzzard bias is the negative connotation we attach to the mere name. The word “vulture” summons up thoughts of predatory greed, amoral opportunism, scavengers eagerly waiting to benefit from another’s misfortune. (Think “media vultures,” “vulture capitalists” or product liability lawyers.)

Fortunately, vultures don’t easily take offense. If recent bird counts are reliable, they’ve even taken a particular liking to North Carolina. Both the turkey vultures (typically seen in these parts) and black vultures have more than doubled their numbers here between 2000 and 2010. An “invasion” of turkey vultures in Shelby made national headlines earlier this year. Reasons for the increase may include rising deer populations, with a corresponding increase in roadkills or natural deaths, and the vulture’s adaptability to suburban life. Or perhaps they just enjoy the smell of barbecue and NASCAR victory burnouts.

Obviously, these are smart birds. Eons ago, I imagine, a particularly bright vulture realized that it was much easier to capture prey that was already dead. Voila, less time spent hunting leaves more time for soaring.

It’s that kind of forward thinking that improves life for all of us, especially when there are so many dumb possums waddling around our busy roads.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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