Tuesday, May 06, 2003

The Vultures Are Circling

And I’ve rarely seen a more beautiful sight.

After she had a stressful job interview, Michele picked me up today for lunch. On our way back, we noted four or five huge birds circling lazily in the sky near my office. As we approached, we saw they were hovering over the field across the street. It’s freshly plowed, a few acres of agriculture in the midst of the office complexes and developments of this East Bay community. We pulled over to watch the birds, parking in the dusty gravel lot where the farmer sells produce.

The birds were huge, at least five feet in wingspan. Reddish heads, dark brownish plumage, pale legs. The wings formed a broad, stylized M; their heads formed a third peak in the middle. Turkey vultures for sure — we checked the birdspotters’ guide Michele keeps in the car, much as I always travel with Roadside Geology of Northern California just in case I see an interesting rock formation.

The vultures were settling in the plowed field, but I couldn’t see a body. Four of them poking their beaks into the ground — could they be eating worms? Then an interruption came. Another vulture came flying in, low, almost buzzing one of the birds. I swear he grabbed with his talons at the other vulture’s head. Naturally the buzzed one was affronted, and they ruffled their feathers at each other, flew up in brief hopping flights, shook their wings, and generally presented the appearance of scuffling schoolboys.

Luckily, neither of them was armed with an AK-47, so the vultures soon settled down. The newest arrival bent his knobby scarlet head, almost as though he was saying grace. When he straightened, a dead rat was dangling by its tail from his beak. The vulture seemed to enjoy swinging the rat — I never saw him or his companions actually eating it.

A train came then, and all the vultures flew up. And I needed to get back to work, so I never did get to see if the vultures shared the rat, or whether the latest arrival was a lead vulture who was punishing an upstart crow. (Well, not crow literally, but nobody ever called Shakespeare an upstart vulture.)

I’ve see a lot of hawks out here, and once or twice an eagle, but turkey vultures recycling a dead rat is a new one for me.

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