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The Vultures Among Us

Every spring three turkey vultures return to our farm and roost on top of the barn. The event isn’t exactly like the annual return of swallows to San Capistrano. The vultures aren’t anyone’s idea of “prepossessing.” On the ground, they’re ungainly. With their beady eyes and ragged cloaks they suggest beggars or gallows birds. An air of guilt and disgrace surrounds them when they’re interrupted at one of their meals. But when they soar, their flight is graceful as a condor’s. We have a natural revulsion to the idea of eating a possum or racoon dead on the road. But the vultures perform an essential task – with apparent relish. They are nature’s sanitary clean-up crew, ridding the environment of disease-breeding, putrefying flesh.

I won’t speculate on the arrangement of the three birds so far as romance is concerned, but they manage to produce a brood of chicks every year. And I take a little pride in the fact that they find our place an agreeable spot to raise a family. They also offer a lesson about the relativity of beauty. To our eyes, vultures may not be as attractive as bluebirds, but in the project of mating and procreation, males and females must discover a kind of beauty in one another. Some vultures must be “handsome” and some “pretty.” There may even be a George Clooney and Gisele Bundchen among them. And they may look upon us with disgust.

I know of no ballad that’s been written about vultures like the one Bing Crosby sang: “When the swallows come back to Capistrano,/That’s the day you promised to come back to me.” But I celebrate their return every year as a reminder of the rhythms of nature, though I do admit to feeling a little uneasy when I find myself enveloped in their shadow when they pass overhead.

The vultures aren’t the only creatures that are familiar in our patch of ground. On the first warm day in spring, a din of peeping frogs fills the air. The inevitable frost silences them, the way it blasts the plum tree that blossoms prematurely. Crane flies have appeared every May since we moved in 20 years ago. Every June, quail begin to whistle, announcing that mating season has begun. They are more than neighbors. The land belongs to them more than it does to us. A bald eagle visited one day. It perched in a tree like a huge parakeet and looked at us as if to say, “What are you two doing here?”

Tragedies occur in this Garden of Eden. We found two antler racks locked together, the remains of bucks that had become entangled as they fought, competing for the favors of some lithesome doe. A pair of Canada geese sets up shop every year on the pond below our house. Sometimes we’re thrilled to see a small band of goslings swimming behind their parents. But they always disappear after a few days, perhaps the victims of a ravenous snapping turtle. The parents seem to take this tragedy in stride. They have fulfilled nature’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” The disastrous end of their efforts is not their affair.

I have seen an osprey plunge from the sky, hit our pond with a smack and then fly up with a large mouth bass in its talons. Once, at dusk, I saw a Coopers Hawk sail like an arrow of doom from a shore-line tree at dusk, its intended quarry, a Pied-billed Grebe bobbing helplessly on the surface of the pond. I wrote him off as a goner. But at the last moment, it docked and disappeared like a submarine. I like to imagine it laughing at the baffled hawk. Sometimes the innocent prevail.

Among the species that are not endangered on our farm are raccoons. The camera mounted by the deer feeder has recorded as many as a dozen of them, swinging like monkeys from metal bars. A local nature sage estimates that there are at least 3,000 rodents per acre in the country, accounting for numerous avian predators – red tailed hawks, owls, marsh hawks, kestrels. In September, great flights of seagulls show up, feeding on some kind of insect that is dependably born that time of year. Every evening at sundown the mob of coyotes begin their eerie howling, organizing for the nightly hunt.

In wildness may be the preservation of the world, but in the wilderness, “Dog eat dog,” and “Eat or be eaten” are the way of the world too.

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