Cathartes Aura

As high as 20,000 feet, they glide, traveling up to 200 miles a day during migration and this with virtually no flapping of their wings for miles. Instead, they ride thermal currents, holding their outstretched wings in dihedral position, tips above their heads in a shallow V. Wafting with wind, they weave through ethereal drafts, ebony feathers ruffling, six foot span cantilevering to catch each current. Their bodies, though two feet long, are feather and bone, a mere two to four pounds, light enough to be blown aloft on any wind at all. Their name is cathartes aura, purifying breeze, a name as beautiful as their effortless flight, invisible to earth eyes.

Wheeling lower, they come within sight, their wings stirring sky, their raised V’s teetering to catch every current in vacuous air. The flock boils in the sky, black steam rising, the grouping, because of this appearance, called a kettle. The kettle stirs and simmers, wobbling wings refusing to flap or fold, silvery underside glinting with caught light. Few birds can glide at such low height, but these have perfected the ability to catch thermals, tipping wings to swirl into invisible layers of air.

Not just for sky poetry do they fly thus: they are seeking, with senses keen and alert. On bald faces, their nares are completely open to scent, their olfactory capacity far surpassing that of any other bird. From over a mile away, they can scent their prey, and they circle down.

De-flighted, they are graceless and awkward, stomping over oozy road kill, “TV dinners” for turkey vultures. Drawn to this spot through whiffing the faint traces of mercaptan, the gasses produced from a decaying body, they can detect a body within 12-24 hours of its dying, though they often wait until the carcass softens enough that their hooked white beaks can pierce the skin. And then they live their names: vulture, the tearer. Plunging their bald red heads into the carrion, they gulp fleshy gobbets, pull ot gelatinous entrails like spaghetti strands. Though such dining may seem akin to dumpster diving, turkey vultures are in fact quite discriminating in their tastes, preferring the flesh of herbivores to that of carnivores, like finicky millennials who insist on grain-fed veal. They eschew highly decayed flesh, though the acids their stomachs produce could handle even that, dissolving dangerous bacteria and viruses, even botulism and anthrax. To kill the bacteria that accumulates on their feet from stepping on the carcasses, vultures defecate and urinate on them, the whitish liquid an internally produced disinfectant.

After feasting, turkey vultures perch soundlessly—they have no vocal organs, so they make no sounds but grunts and hisses—in the branches of trees, the same roosts that their ancestors chose, a true family tree, each selecting the same branch day after day. Now, appropriately, the perched grouping is called a wake, sitting silent vigil over the remains they have tearer-ized. As night accumulates around them, they become silhouettes, hunched and ungainly protrusions on knobby branches. The sky darkens, dissolving black bodies into the night.

As revolting to human sensibilities as turkey vulture practices are, however, the earth needs their purifying breeze. Turkey vultures cleanse the landscape, devouring death and disease, swallowing putrescence. Decomposition is to them delectable to the same degree that it is to us discommending.

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