This July has been the month of turkey vulture nestlings.
In late May I noticed that every time I approached the Guest House, a vulture would fly up from the sunken patio. Was there a carcass nearby? In a cubby hole under the walkway to the front door, I found a different explanation. Lying on the gravel, amidst last-year's blown-in leaves, were two giant eggs, white with tan splotches. I had seen vultures going in and out of abandoned barns, and I had assumed that they nested up high, closer to where they soar, perhaps in the rafters or the hay loft. A little research enlightened me: Vultures nest in enclosed spaces, so yes, they do use old buildings, but also hollow logs, caves, burrows under overhangs, holes in trees. The nook under the walkway definitely fit their specs.
I was alarmed by what else I learned: When the eggs hatched, the carrion-eating parents would regurgitate food for the young, leading to noticeable aromas. This would not be a quick process, either, as the nestlings would take two to three months to fledge!
Uh-oh. Eco-tourists use our Guest House to reconnect with nature. We'd be offering them nature all right, nature with a capital N. Still, how could we justify killing only to avoid the aroma of what was already dead? We, the proprietors of a wildlife refuge, were not about to destroy a nest--or lose the opportunity to observe it closely. So first, a quick announcement on the web site: The Guest House is currently unavailable for rental. Next, a trailcam, pointed at the cubby.
So began my involvement with Family Vulture. Through trailcam videos, I learned that both parents brooded the eggs and that mice, songbirds, woodrats, and squirrels could approach the nest with impunity. But when a possum ambled into the cubby, it was a different story. The adult fluffed up and glared, and the possum, being a possum, didn't notice at first--but when it finally dawned on him what was in front of him, he backed out fast! Ditto for a raccoon, who developed a sudden interest in another location once he got a load of the vulture's stare. But one night when both parents were gone, the possum came back. I assumed that that was it--the next generation would have naked tails, not naked heads--and it was all because the parents were off gallivanting when they should have been protecting the eggs. But I was wrong. The possum nosed the eggs myopically and then began grubbing in the leaf litter, where he found something interesting, pulled it up, and munched it slowly. Then he turned around three times (what was that about?), and waddled off. I breathed a sigh of relief. Threat averted, but how? I had read that vultures use projectile vomiting as a defense against predators--not to disgust them but to distract them with an easier meal. Now I wondered if the adults had left some tidbits near the eggs for that same purpose. My criticism of the parents changed to admiration.
But at the end of June, while I was at a family reunion in Wisconsin, my husband called to tell me that the eggs were no more. My heart sank. I had visions of the possum finally claiming the prize. But then Ron laughed and said the eggs were gone because they had been replaced by two fluffy chicks! He sent me photos, and I saw the cubby now graced by what looked like two balls of white cotton stuck onto big black beaks.
Since returning to Kansas, I have watched the cotton balls grow into chicken-sized birds whose feet aren't made for walking, as the youngsters lurch and teeter and stumble wherever they go. They are still covered in fluffy white down, and when left alone they huddle in the back of the alcove, like giant snowballs. But when Mom or Pop shows up, they spring to life. They jump up and down and flap their undersized wings, looking a little like penguins as they stand up tall to reach their parent's bill. The adult puts his or her mandibles around the nestling's head and then brings up predigested food. Not every item on the menu makes it into the little gullet; it's that spillage that accumulates and becomes the source of stench. However, when the parents are away, the nestlings turn the leftovers into snacks and even allay their hunger by eating the food stuck to their nestmate's chest and back. The smell thus goes as well as comes, thanks to the little odor-eaters.
Indeed, the chicks' destiny is to transform the loathsome into the benign. The pathogens that flourish in putrid flesh are killed by a vulture's digestive tract. Sacred in some ancient cultures, vultures certainly live up to their genus name Cathartes, the purifiers.
It's true that while working in the guest house I sometimes have to close the windows and turn on an air cleaner. When that happens I find myself counting the days until September or October when we can bring in the powerwashers. But in the meantime, it's not bad to be reminded that nature, which renews our spirits, is not all gorgeous sunsets and blooming flowers. In fact, "renewal" depends for its meaning on something old, past it, done for. Carrion being fed to growing chicks reminds us that all stories are connected, and that when one thing is too far gone, another is just getting started.