- The Vulture Tree
To be eaten by that beak and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes—
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.Robinson Jeffers, "Vulture"
The tree's bleached branches twist like misshapen arms, skeletal and bowed as they reach towards the cloud cover. It stands stark along Interstate 79 as I drive past; behind it billows a green curtain of leaves and pastures. Vultures hunch in crooks of the tree's elbows, talons wrapped around knots in the dead wood. There isn't an official term for a group of vultures, and flock seems too gentle—I call them a hunch of vultures. Hunch describes them best. They hunch together in the tree, they even seem to hunch when they soar. The vultures scan the highway as a light rain begins to fall. One spreads its wings. Another shivers and shakes drops from its feathers. Perched like black gargoyles they hunch and wait for something to die.
I turn off the interstate and pull into the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center. My husband, Jesse, has already arrived; his silver car parked between poplar trees in the gravel driveway. Earlier the center received a call about an injured turkey vulture. It had been limping around on the ground behind a shopping center, trying to hide amid dumpsters and piles of scrap metal. An army of feral cats had kept their distance, but hissed and growled when the bird dragged itself from one filthy crevice to another. Jesse rescued the bird and transported it here for treatment.
Inside the raptor center, Jesse has already begun to examine our patient. The vulture is weak. Jesse wraps his hands around the bird's emaciated body; its red head droops as it tries to struggle out of his grasp. The feathers of the vulture's underside are matted with dried feces; it must have been on [End Page 113] the ground for days. We weigh the bird, shine a flashlight in its brown eyes, and gently stretch each wing. Besides being very thin it has no obvious injuries. We put the vulture in an ICU cage, and I split the belly of a deadrat and slide it toward the bird. It tears the rodent from me with its beak, turns its back to us and silently strips the meat from the rat's bones.
A vulture is primal. It lives by the deaths of other creatures, but it's not a predator. A hawk, for example, hunts—stalks, stoops, and squeezes the life from its prey, rips through bodies with razor talons. A turkey vulture waits. It isn't a murderer, and it doesn't kill, but it's impossible not to think about death with a vulture nearby. Through the steel cage bars, I watch the starved bird devour its meal, skinning meat and sinew from wet bones. It turns the rat almost inside out, holds a corner of pelt under a toenail and skillfully cleans the hide. The end of this bird's beak is curved like a crochet hook, a delicate tool for knitting through organs, separating muscle from bone, from skin. The vulture is an intricate and meticulous artist. In a few minutes the rat is empty. Its skin folds like baggy pants in a loose pile around its large thigh bones. The bird seems satisfied and drags what remains of the rat to a back corner of the cage to save for later. It looks over its hunched shoulder at me, cautiously turns, and steps onto a rope-wrapped perch.
We don't treat many turkey vultures at the raptor center. I would like to believe that their intelligence allows them to avoid moving cars and humans; it seems more likely though that people have greater respect and pity for injured hawks and eagles. Eagles are symbols of nations; we see them as majestic birds to be proud of, and we put their likeness on currency and leather jackets. Vultures have become greedy, sneaky undertakers. I think injured vultures might be left to die.
A few weeks ago Jesse and I...