A turkey vulture is a perfect creature. It is neither prey nor predator. It exists outside the typical food chain, beyond the kill-or-be-killed law of nature, although without death it would starve. On six-foot wings it floats above our daily lives, waiting for the inevitable moment that will come to each of us, to every living thing. Then the vulture transforms these transformations—these deaths—into life.
I was thinking about the circle of life as the elevator door slid open and the attendant wheeled me onto the sixth floor, into the hospital's labor and delivery unit. My husband Jesse followed, laden with several bags of our clothes, an outfit for our soon-to-be-born baby, cameras, and books. One of the bags also contained a charm of sorts—a large black flight feather, recently molted from a turkey vulture we'd been caring for at our nonprofit avian rehabilitation center. The vulture had been caught in an illegally set leg-hold trap, meant for a raccoon or another small mammal; after two surgeries and many rounds of physiotherapy, the bird would be healthy enough to be released in a week or two. In addition to the feather, a pendant depicting Nekhbet, ancient Egypt's vulture goddess, hung from my necklace. [End Page 131]
This was probably the first time a vulture feather had been brought into the maternity ward of the university's state-of-the-art hospital. But ancient peoples, including the Egyptians and the Greeks, considered vultures protectors and ideal mothers. Nekhbet, usually shown as a griffon vulture with wings spread and a shen—a symbol of eternity— in her talons, appears on the tombs of pharaohs. A golden Nekhbet sits atop Tutankhamen's death mask, and several elaborate Nekhbet necklaces and collars encircled the young king's neck and shoulders. In addition to shielding the pharaohs, Nekhbet protected mothers and women during childbirth. Perhaps it was the vulture's ability to turn death into life that inspired Nekhbet's role as a kind of supernatural midwife. When our daughter entered the world seven hours later, I was still wearing my Nekhbet pendant.
Turkey vultures have an undeserved reputation as dirty, sneaky sorts. Many people find them ugly, disgusting, or worse. They have been accused of killing calves and lambs, though no documented accounts of this exist. It's likely the birds are attracted to livestock giving birth—both turkey vultures and black vultures have been known to eat the placentas of sheep and cows. (I'd wanted to save my own placenta to feed to the turkey vulture in our care, but it was whisked away at the hospital.) The scientific literature on turkey vultures goes to great lengths to document any instances of them taking live prey; these instances are very few and far between, and most involve "unnatural situations," such as birds caught in traps or birds in captivity. The only animals ever proven to be killed by turkey vultures include a ruffed grouse chick, small fish, turtle hatchlings, and perhaps nestlings or sickly birds. If it's available, and it usually is, turkey vultures prefer carrion.
A world without avian scavengers is a world imperiled. Vultures decontaminate landscapes by removing dead animals that might otherwise contribute to the spread of disease. A turkey vulture's powerful [End Page 132] digestive system can neutralize dangerous pathogens such as anthrax and botulism. Unlike some mammalian scavengers, vultures do not spread rabies or distemper virus. Vultures are the peaceful recyclers of the animal kingdom, perfectly adapted to cleanse, purify, and renew.
My daughter was born clutching the umbilical cord in her little hand. Our midwife let Jesse "catch" the baby. He handed the wiggling, crying, and visibly confused creature to me, and I held her to my chest as she began to root for her first meal. The side of her cheek pressed against me as she squirmed, and I realized the Nekhbet pendant was between us. I slid the pendant over my shoulder as the baby began to nurse. We were naked, the warm, slippery baby and I, and aside from the modern trappings of...