Vultures are fascinating birds who are poorly understood by most of us. Katie Fallon, cofounder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, hopes to rectify that with her book, Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird.
One of the first things a reader learns is something that should be obvious, but isn’t. Vultures are a critical element in the food chain, but in a way, they are also outside it. They are neither predator and are seldom prey. They, by and large, only eat carrion, the remains of already dead animals, so there is no predation in their consumption. They are not natural prey of animals in the wild and are only prey to humans because we are wildly misinformed.
In a grotesque example, the Washington Post published a story headlined “Virginia Vultures Turn Vicious, Dine on Pets, Terrorize Owners.” It included the false anecdote of a vulture carrying off a neighbor’s pet, except it would be impossible for a vulture to carry an animal in its talons. More importantly, they are not interested in live prey. They are sometimes implicated in the deaths of pets and livestock because they clean up the aftermath, which is kind of like blaming the hotel maid for the damage the partiers did the night before.
Vultures are important to human survival as they clean up the dead, preventing the spread of disease. In India and Africa, vulture populations are threatened and with reduced numbers have come increased problems. In Africa, they are deliberately targeted by poachers as vultures reveal the site of mass poaching kills.
Katie Fallon is more than a vulture enthusiast; she is a vulture evangelist and her book, Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird is a work of bird evangelism. In many ways, that makes it an exciting book. It does, however, cause her to come across a bit unbalanced a couple of times. For example, when communities in their fear and ignorance ask the USDA to “do something” about the vultures roosting in town, one of the USDA tactics is to place effigies and dead vulture carcasses. This drives them away without shooting them because they don’t eat their own. Perhaps there is some instinct that suggests dead vulture carcasses indicate a danger. So it works and the townsfolk don’t end up organizing an illegal buzzard shoot.
Vultures roost as an extended family, so she analogizes a vulture coming to see those effigies to a person coming home and seeing an uncle hanging from the porch. Now I will quote her exactly, because this is too problematic to paraphrase, “But killing and hanging carcasses in trees—with the intent to intimidate and disperse certain populations—also has troubling historical complications, especially in the South. It seems, at least to me, that this practice should never be normalized, for any species.” Did she just compare a method to disperse vultures without killing them to lynching? A species protection tactic to terrorism? This is an anthropomorphic stretch and it’s an analogy that should never have been made. The list of things that can be compared to lynching is short and contains one item: lynching.
One of my favorite parts of the book were the short interstitial narratives that describe the life of a female vulture over the course of a year. They are poetic, but restrained for the most part to description. There is no projection of human emotion onto the vulture, just a narrative of what she sees and does. I was fascinated by the information about the vultures. I mean, wow! a vulture flew at 37,000 feet! It’s sad we know this because it was sucked into an engine, but that’s amazing.
Turkey buzzards, her favorite vulture, are particularly interesting because their population is thriving despite the challenges human activity throw in their way. This is in sharp contrast to vultures in other parts of the world. This is also in spite of the grotesque insistence on lead ammunition by hunters as it kills wildlife who consume the remains of dressed deer and other game. Hunters would be a boon to vultures if they only changed their ammunition. In a disgraceful example of seeking the bottom rung of humanity, the Trump Administration has repealed the ban on lead ammunition. This means more birds and other animals dying of lead poisoning.
Fallon does not just present the problems. Her finally chapter gives a list of actions people who care about birds and who care about vultures can take to make a difference. This makes her an evangelist, but that is what birds need.
I was provided a copy of Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird for review by the publisher through a drawing at LibraryThing.
- Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird at University Press of New England
- Katie Fallon author site