The Most Magnificent Fliers of All: Turkey Vultures

Reading a description of turkey vultures in an old natural history book inspired me to write one of my favorite poems. (Unless you prefer Sparrow’s version.)

Trespassing at the Leap
Platte Clove, Catskills

The sign said, “Strictly Forbidden.”
I stepped over the guardrail and surged with happiness.
I dug my heels down the deer path of slippery duff
and grabbed the green paws of hemlock branches.
At the leap overlooking the gorge and waterfall,
I crawled to the edge and counted seconds,
as my spit dropped into rocks and ferns
of scree below. My groin tingled
with vertigo. After crawling back,
I rubbed off pebbles pressed in my palms.

How often had I seen this chasm painted?
The famous Devil’s Kitchen and Bridal Veil Falls.
Yet as I sat where artists sit,
this scene refused to hold itself still,
not the forest leaves shimmying like sequins,
nor the valley humidity stirring with airborne seeds,
nor the slender waterfall shredding itself
into frothy diamonds. As a poet,
I wanted to join this flow.

I studied the vultures rocking on wings,
trolling the clove, then raised my arms in a V.
Impatient in the breeze, I leaped
and almost snagged my foot on a pitch pine
knotted to the cliff, then nearly shed my face
on a jutting bluestone brow spotted with lichen.
But somehow I soared into thickening air.
Pennies tumbled from my pocket like copper moths;
my falling wallet flapped like a bat.
Steadying my arms, I coasted into a thermal
that carried me high on a warm carousel.
Hunger awakened me to all the odors in the air.
I knew the smell of death I once feared
was what would sustain me now.

This poem appears in My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse. The notion that I might fly like a turkey vulture occurred to me as I read the claim in A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Edward Howe Forbush and Joh Bichard May that these birds fly the way we do in our dreams. Here is the book’s description of turkey vultures, an animal I’ve written about more than once.

“The Turkey Vulture, or “Buzzard,” as it is commonly called in the South, leaves the ground with a bound and a few flaps, unless gorged with carrion, when it must disgorge much of its filthy cargo in order to enable it to get away; but when once in air and gaining height it moves with the ease of a master. No other American bird is so generally celebrated for its perfect conquest of the aerial currents. It seems to sail and soar gracefully without effort and to gain altitude even in windless air with few motions of its widespread pinions, which carry it up as if by magic. It seems to materialize the flight of the dreamer who imagines that he floats through the air by the mere effort of his will.

“There are, perhaps, not more than two or three Turkey Vultures to the square mile in their southern range, but on their aerial courses they patrol the land thoroughly, and probably there are few dead animals that escape their telescopic vision. Over hill and dale, lake and stream, farm, forest and village, the Buzzards wheel, adding life to the blue vault above, until one of the tireless birds sees some prospect of a feast. It may be that its keen eyes have spied a dead or dying animal, or a corpse rising to the surface of a stream, or even the village toper fallen by the wayside. Immediately the watchful fowl descends to the hoped-for feast, lowering its legs eagerly, long before it actually lights. Another, circling in the distant sky, sees that sudden “stoop” and follows. Others in all directions mark the descending twain and wing their way to the common center. As they go they are seen from afar by others still, and soon every Vulture for miles around has assembled near the expected feast. Scores as they arrive alight on trees or fences, while a few of the boldest drop to the ground and with exceeding circumspection approach the object of their quest, for your Buzzard is a cowardly fowl and intends to take good care of his precious skin. They often gather thus, not only about dead animals, but also about the sick or disabled when death seems imminent. If the death of the victim seems assured they approach their prey. Over what follows let us draw the veil.

“It is supposed that the Buzzards find their food entirely by sight; they frequently have failed to locate it when it has been covered by so frail a substance as paper; but their nostrils are large, and probably they have a sense of smell, as often they have hung about malodorous decaying bodies, apparently searching for them, but unable to discover them when hidden from sight.”

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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