There are few things in this world as graceful as a bird in flight and, among birds in flight, vultures might be the most graceful of all. While clumsy on the ground, vultures aloft are able to ride thermals for as long as six hours, rocking back and forth on the wind and never flapping their wings.
Our Merced vultures are classified as New World vultures, as opposed to Old World vultures, which inhabit Europe, Africa, and Asia. In old westerns, turkey vultures were usually called buzzards, and they were depicted as ugly, scraggly creatures that circled the dying — the hapless cowboy buried up to his neck in sand, the bleeding gunslinger who had finally met his match on a deserted plain, the decrepit hermit suffering from wounds inflicted by a grizzly bear.
But in fact, vultures cannot sense when something beneath them is about to meet its maker. They can, however, smell rotting flesh, even in the early stages of decomposition, and can do so from as far as a mile away. That circling you see in the azure sky is merely a kettle of vultures riding the wind, each buzzard using its keen eyes and sense of smell to locate the dead far below. As soon as one vulture in the kettle locates carrion, they will all swoop down en masse to beat other scavengers to the feast.
Once on the ground, one vulture at a time will tear at the carcass while the others wait their turn. A feeding group of vultures is called a wake — thus, vultures can go from a kettle to a wake in a relatively short period of time. (While some may deride the English language for its many inconsistencies and eccentricities, there are times when we all must marvel at its aptness.)
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As the terms used to describe vultures indicate, they spend a lot of time in groups. Like humans, vultures are social animals. That lone vulture you spot circling the skies over Merced is not a maverick — it is merely biding its time until the rest of the kettle shows up. They live in roosts comprising as many as one hundred vultures. Just like humans, they sense safety in numbers. They even form committees, which is what you should call a group of vultures living in the trees in your neighborhood.
I have loved vultures since 1967 when I first saw The Jungle Book, Disney’s animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories. I was 9 years old at the time, and the scene featuring four buzzards modeled on The Beatles was, for me, the height of sophisticated hilarity.
There are many things to like about vultures.
Besides their beauty in flight, they are faithful lovers, mating for life and raising their young cooperatively, with one adult vulture always remaining in the nest while the other goes out to feed and bring home the regurgitation. They perform an elaborate dance ritual before having sex (another human-like quality!), and they are impervious to anthrax. They pee on their legs to cool off, and while this might not be a noble behavior, it is nevertheless a pretty efficient one.
But in regards to vultures lately, I have not been thinking about old westerns, colorful language, socialization, lovable caricatures, or interesting behaviors. I have instead been thinking about the committee of vultures in my neighbor’s backyard pine — the neighbor is sure there are at least 100 vultures roosting in the tree — and the methods he is using to evict them.
While vultures are very cool birds in the air, or while forming committees far away from my house, they are far less attractive when they reside nearby. I have not had any direct trouble with the neighborhood vultures, but I do know that they can be a nuisance. At night, they regurgitate the undigestible parts of the carrion they have noshed throughout the day, and it does not take much imagination to envision the mess of vomit, guano, and feathers that a hundred hulking birds, weighing about three pounds each, might create in an urban backyard. I sympathize with my neighbor. The tree the vultures have inhabited is not even his tree. It belongs to the family next door, but is situated near his property.
It is not as though the owners of the tree are unconcerned about the vultures.
They are kind, responsible neighbors. Solutions have been bandied about, a neighborhood meeting was held, bids for cutting down the tree (the only long-term solution) have been sought. But right now, the neighbor who is most affected by the vultures has only one recourse at his disposal, other than resigning himself to the mess: shooting off a starter pistol at intervals throughout the evening.
Normally, the sounds of artillery in my neighborhood would not disturb me much.
When my parents lived in Snelling in the 1970s, the owner of a nearby property set off a carbide cannon regularly to deter wild animals from tearing up his garden.
But Monty, my Pyrenees, does not share my complacency. Neither do my other dogs, though they are too small to do much damage when trying to flee an imagined apocalypse. But Monty is big, about 130 pounds, and he has impressive teeth and claws. So far, he has torn an expensive screen door from its rightful place alongside the sliding glass door, bending it and ripping up the screen in the process. He has annihilated an inside laundry room door and damaged a window frame in the outside laundry room door, trying to squeeze through a narrow opening to escape the noise. He has managed to rip rows off a chain-link fence so that he could crawl underneath it in order to find refuge. In doing so, he has sustained a variety of cuts and wounds.
This is not our neighbor’s fault. He is a good person, very apologetic about the circumstances, and with him we have devised a warning system. He texts us about 15 minutes before he is about to fire the pistol so that we can be on hand to calm Monty. In fact, we cannot calm the dog. He shakes for at least ten minutes after every blast. But we can keep him from demolishing our home down to its foundation.
And so for now, using dog melatonin and, hopefully, eventual desensitization, Monty is learning to live with our neighbors. And my husband and I are looking for solutions that are economical, practical, and quiet. I’ll discuss some of these in my next article.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.