The gatekeepers

There they sat, like black, lumpy beads strung across the roofline. A baker’s dozen, "Cathartes aura -Florida -USA -upper body-8" by Dori - originally posted to Flickr as 20100130_9526. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - fit for any pie. Who knows when they arrived—a month, two months after the old house became empty? I had watched them on my daily walks for several weeks, trying but not succeeding to admire their dark feathers and hunched silhouettes.

Despite my personal ambivalence, turkey vultures, also known as buzzards, were viewed favorably in ancient times. The Mayans knew them as death eaters, believing they could convert death into life. To the Egyptians, vultures were the gatekeepers to the Underworld. Native American shamans interpreted vulture flight as a way to reveal weather and omens. In Greek mythology, vultures symbolized the oneness of heaven and earth, and ancient Assyrians saw in them the union between day and night.

Vultures are the false gold of my students, who unfailingly identify them as hawks until I point out the characteristic teeter-totter of their otherwise smooth glide. A knowledge of this bird’s ecological importance is a lesson in itself: while the thought of carrion for dinner is unpleasant, even more unpleasant is that of a world devoid of scavengers and decomposers. The vulture has its place in the food web, as well as legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

While the sight of twelve vultures roosting on a roofline may be off-putting, there is an admitted majesty to that of one vulture soaring over Adkins Arboretum’s meadows. With a wingspan of up to 72 inches, the vulture is an easy sighting for beginning birders and nature enthusiasts. Visiting the Arboretum in search of hawks may or may not be successful, but visiting to spy a vulture will almost never disappoint.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator

**Visit the Arboretum Sunday, March 29 for Tree Rings 102, a family-friendly program that is part of the Arboretum’s Outdoor Explorers series. You’re almost sure to see a vulture overhead.**


2 thoughts on “The gatekeepers

  1. Also ID them by the slight v shape ( dihedral ) of the wing. And the wide silver trailing edge of the wing. But you most likely already know that…just sayin’.

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