The Backyard Naturalist – Vultures
Andrew Wyeth made a painting called “Soaring” in the 1940s. There’s a little white farmhouse in it. It’s very, very little because it’s viewed from the perspective of a group of turkey vultures wheeling hundreds of feet above. Other than the farmhouse, the landscape consists of vague rolling hills painted gray-green. There are three vultures in the painting, and you are the fourth, looking at the scene from above the others. It is uncanny in the way that Freud defined the term: “all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” I read the painting that way the first time I saw it, finding myself mentally wandering that quiet, dust-moted farmhouse, all of its residents dead. Hence, vultures descending.
The thing about vultures is that they’re usually ascending, not descending, when they circle. A lot of raptors do this, riding tornado-shaped updrafts of warm air thousands of feet into the sky. At the top, where the currents peter out, the birds will coast off and try to catch the next thermal. Stringing these together, they can travel long distances, or pick up the scent of an enticing carcass, and descend. A spiraling vulture, in other words, is a rising vulture, and one in search of dead meat, not one that has found it already.
I met a vulture named Violet a few years ago. She’s a captive bird, acclimated to humans, living at a nature education center. I was visiting her enclosure to give her a medical checkup. After I’d been inside with her for a bit, observing her more out of fascination than any veterinary need, she hopped down off her perch and stomped over toward me. She stopped, standing about a foot away, and then lunged at my shoe and started tugging on the laces. I laughed, but as she got increasingly aggressive, I stepped away from her and she gave it a rest while I looked her in the eye and asked what that was all about. She turned away and seemed to affect a posture of nonchalance. She walked, slowly, studiously casual, around some rocks and her little hideout shelter, clearly pretending not to notice me. I turned my body sideways, watching her only out of the corner of my eye, and she leaped toward my shoe and started worrying the laces again.
We repeated this routine over and over, she watching me, and I watching her. Whenever I turned my back, she’d pounce, like a bulky, bald-headed cat. My laughter gained a hint of anxiety as she got more and more agitated, starting to yank my pant leg with her beak, too, but every time I looked her directly in the eye, she’d stop. My friend Sarah was in the enclosure with me; she and Violet are friends. I, on the other hand, was new and had to be tested. I am sure I failed, in Violet’s estimation, as I backed through the door and out, laces dragging.
The thermals that vultures ride are often marked by puffy white cumulus clouds at their tops, and their generation is dependent on the sun warming the ground below. So, not only are circling vultures not a sign that anyone’s lying dead below, they’re most likely to be seen soaring together in those wobbly circles on a clear, warm, blue-sky day. The dread seems to drain away, knowing this. Now, when I look at the Wyeth painting, I think of Violet, her wildness, but also her comfort around humans that allowed me to get close enough to glimpse her personality, her game with its edge of menace and provocation, her curiosity. No uncanny symbol, no harbinger of death, just an animal like us, fond of warm breezes, sunny days and practical jokes.