Flight of the vultures

“Beware the ides of March” — William Shakespeare I was watching the turkey vultures rise on the wind over the canyon today, contemplating my passion for these birds that goes all the way back to when my kids were small. Here is something I wrote back then:

In mid-March, the weather here in the Southwest is still iffy; just when I think that spring’s glory days are here, the wind howls, the snow blows and I once again find myself scraping ice off my windshield in my nightgown and sorrels. There have been years here when it hasn’t stopped snowing until after the 4th of July.

As I scrape my windshield and load the woodstove, I wonder, “Is this going to be one of those years when spring never comes?”

Day after howling day, I sit at my kitchen table, downing cups of coffee, despairing. I’m ready to go to the desert, ready to float down the river, sleep under the stars, lie naked on the slick rock. Will spring ever arrive?

Then, I see them; great, hulking black creatures, occupying every limb of the snag by the river. Like clockwork, the turkey vultures have returned. They bring with them an omen on this day, the ides of March, yet it is not the soothsayer’s omen of death as most people think. Instead, they bring the promise of spring. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t following close on their heels.

Having grown up elsewhere, I was a bit intimidated by the apparent hostility of this foreign world. Here was the stuff of nightmares and Bugs Bunny cartoons: barren landscapes, thorny cactus, hairy spiders the size of my fist, and vultures, patiently awaiting my demise as I drag myself across the parched land desperately searching for water.

Perhaps one of my most formative memories centers around driving through my mother’s Florida homeland, bottomless canals separating reckless drivers from the citrus groves. Fearing a slip from tarmac to murky water, I fantasized being simultaneously devoured by alligators below and vultures above. As if to prove me right, as I pressed my nose against the window, an entire flock, or venue, of the black monsters took to wing, circling over our Oldsmobile, daring us to make one careless move.

Who would have ever guessed that I would someday anxiously await their arrival each year, feeling their presence as a reminder of life, beauty and freedom? As Cathartes Aura returns to her summer homeland, I too return to mine; the rivers and the rocks of the desert.

If I, like her, could spend my winters south of the border, eating pescado y carne asada, I would. Instead, I hole up in my trailer, listening to the wind whip underneath the floor, shaking the walls as it moves. I bundle up in blankets, strap on my down booties and patiently await the days of warmth, sunshine and never-ending light. Not carrying too much natural insulation myself, I often wonder why I, too, don’t migrate to avoid my suffering. In enviously envisioning my feathered friends living the good life in Mexico, or Guatemala, I wonder if they miss me as much as I miss them.

Yesterday, I ventured out for a walk down the river road, looking for the few avian stragglers who remain in this valley for the winter; bushtits, crows and a lone kingfisher. There on the side of the road was a freshly killed deer. The way he was struck opened him up for an easily accessible meal. Given that turkey vultures have wimpy talons, they like their meals well-prepared. Here it was, fresh, gourmet, and done to perfection. I looked in the sky for the tell-tale funnel of wings, circling over the carcass.

None. The birds are absent; the meal will go to waste.

Although it disgusts some folks to see a bunch of bald-headed birds sitting on a dead deer, sticking their heads into the gut, it is really just one more sign of Nature’s grand plan. Dead animals carry disease and stench. If left to its own devices, a deer carcass will spread illness and odor to rats, dogs and people. Instead, our friend the T.V. swoops on in, cleans up the mess and not only keeps man’s best friend safe, but tidies up the kitchen as well.

I just hoped as I stared into the ribcage of this doe that my friends were eating well on the beach.

And that they’d be home soon.

When they come, the bear can come out of hibernation and so can I. I know that the cold will end and that I can take my skinny ass outside again without the risk of freezing it off. I know that soon the days will be long enough for the boys and me to camp without having to crawl into my tent at 6 p.m. Right around the corner are days on the river.

Turkey vultures love the desert, preferring habitat that is dry and open. They soar on thermals that form above mountains, shorelines and rocky cliffs. They do not need a lot of water, as they get much of their moisture from what they eat. They spend their waking hours floating on air and like to hang out in dead trees. We can provide an abundance of those around here.

I too am suited for desert life. My soul soars with the first smell of sage and the feel of the breeze blowing off the surface of the river. If I could fly, I would. I need the red rock cliffs to lift me up, just as the birds do. Being flight-challenged, the only way for me to be “up” is to climb there. Sitting upon the rim of a canyon, or what Ed Abbey dubbed “the edge of nowhere,” completes my being as nothing else can.

They say birds live by instinct, not emotion. To watch a kettle of T.V.s in the sky is to know that yes, birds actually do have feelings and are capable of experiencing pleasure. You know they’ve got to be having fun as they effortlessly circle over the earth. The emotions I imagine them having are the same ones that I experience: unabashed joy, freedom, and an urge to giggle out loud.

To float down river, silently watching the world drift by, is simple and honest contentment. It is a visceral feeling, one with no language. I used to attempt describing it, to convince the unbelieving of the power of this experience. Now, I no longer try. It is futile to speak of it. Words only diminish the emotion. Silence is reverence.

Vultures do not speak. Occasionally, one will emit a small grunt or hiss, but mostly, they are quiet. Are they more evolved than humans? Do they know that true beauty, true feeling has no lexicon, so why bother trying? Silently, they float above us. Do they wish that humans would just shut the hell up and look around?

Probably, they think we are just hopeless.

When the birds arrive in the spring, my son Bowen is the first to spot them. I realize that he has been spending his days searching the skies just as I have. Bowen, my quiet child, has always had an affinity for birds. He was the child who would spend hours on the beach trying to catch a seagull or a raven in the park. He is acutely aware of who is hanging around the feeders and fence posts near our home. He spends hours poring over the pages in my bird guides memorizing flight patterns and migration habits.

One day as I watched him move in the field outside our trailer, it registered that with his bald head, red Mohawk and big black jacket, he looked exactly like a turkey vulture. When I told him this, he was ecstatic. What child wouldn’t want to be likened to a bird that his mother reveres?

Like the T.V., Bowen is quiet, loyal, generous, and a loner. His brother, Everett, is the gregarious clown, much like a raven. But Bowen moves quietly and gracefully through this world. Bowen, being very different than most other 6-year-olds, is often misunderstood. We fans of vultures see that they are also grossly misunderstood. So often considered ugly, dirty and harbingers of death, they are really peaceful, beautiful and dedicated to family. They mate for life and nest with their families year after year. Bowen is not ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but he is content to remain insulated with his brother and parents.

Having seen the resemblance between my child and T.V.s, I now hold each of them even more dear to my heart.

So as I sit, wrapped in a quilt, I hold my own personal Turkey Vulture on my lap. We do not talk, we are silent. We look out the window, perusing the heavens for the black funnel, the telltale V of wings, tipped up at the ends, not moving. Circling, Circling, up to near-invisibility, then reappearing, magically back near the earth. Bowen catches the first glimpse; he lifts his arms out towards them. Then, he wraps those arms around my neck and hugs with all of his might.

All is right, we are warm, and spring is here once again.

Suzanne Strazza writes from Montezuma County, Colo.

From Suzanne Strazza.