Desert Notes: Birds of Spring

Robin Patten

To be eaten
by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment;
What a life after death.

“Vulture” Robinson Jeffers, 1963

Roosting vultures. Photo by Robin Patten

Morning comes, and the vultures are rising, lifting off their cottonwood roost, slowly spiraling upward until they reach their desired height and head north in linear flight. With their elegant glide and only an occasional flap of their six-foot wingspan, they take on the appearance of a large hawk or an eagle as they move from roost to canyon, from rest to hunt. They are too high for their featherless head to show, that craggy red head that is often deemed ugly, even grotesque. I watch as they pass over. They are simply beautiful.

The turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) returned to Bluff at their usual time, appearing just at the equinox, heralds of spring. The great black birds swept up from their winter haunts as far away as South America, settling back into canyon country until their departure in fall. It’s a long-distance migration characteristic of the western United States vultures, a contrast to eastern vultures who migrate only short distances and to some southeast populations that remain resident year-round.

As a naturalist and newcomer to Bluff, I was delighted to learn the town celebrates their vultures. For over 30 years, some of the town’s residents have come together to mark the vultures’ return and the coming of spring at a gathering generously hosted by a local couple. And Jim Hook, another long-time Bluff local, has been tracking the flock for all those decades.

Jim remembers the first spring he saw the vultures return, noting that “one day there were no vultures and the next day there were a dozen or more roosting in the tops of those trees.” That was after he and Luanne came to Bluff in 1988 to work as managers for Gene and Mary Foushee at Recapture Lodge, the hotel they now own. Jim has kept a record of the vultures’ comings and goings ever since. In those many years of watching, the flock’s return is so predictable “you can set your calendar by them,” always a day or two around March 23. Jim thinks this regular migration has been happening for a very long time. “I believe this same flock has done that since likely the Ice Ages, which is a marvel to me.”

Jim’s records show the flock’s departure is less certain and apparently weather dependent; the birds gather on the cliffs above the San Juan River when the cold first pushes down from the north, then leave en masse for their southern winter range. He’s seen over 60 vultures grouped together before their fall migration.

This year, the Bluff vultures streamed in as usual, and now dozens of birds gather in the evening in their cottonwoods, a “committee” of roosting vultures. The group will take on a different nomenclature when they rise and spiral like the stirred contents of a pot, becoming a “kettle” of vultures. And when they join together for a meal, scavenging on carrion, filling their bellies with the flesh of the dead, it is a “wake” of vultures.

A wake is a vigil, a respectful gathering for the deceased, considered a celebration of life. It seems an appropriate word for the vulture’s feasting, for though they might be thought of with distaste as eaters of death and lovers of decay, they are significant for other life as scavengers in the ecosystems where they reside. These birds hunt not for living prey, but for the dead, using their keen sense of smell to locate their meal. Reducing carcasses to bone, removing rotting remains, their strong stomach acids breaking down the toxins associated with decay, the birds help cleanse the land, potentially reducing disease and the spread of bacteria. And that wrinkled red head? Though it is often assumed the bare skin keeps the bird clean as it dips its head into rot, research indicates the featherless head may be for thermal regulation, shedding heat as much as it sheds gore.

Of course, there are other birds who arrive in spring. A few weeks after the vultures arrived, the hummingbirds appeared, iridescent buzzing beauties likewise returning from somewhere south of the border. I imagine these miniscule flitting birds crossing paths with the massive soaring vultures in the airstreams over our head, both fulfilling their annual cycle, both migrating in instinctual movement, quickness and light set against weighty and dark. The hummers are not so conspicuous as the vultures, best seen when they pause at a flower, filling their bellies with nectar, spreading pollen as they move between plants.

Hummingbirds and vultures sit at the far ends of the avian spectrum: one quick and darting, sipping sweet liquid, the other floating and ponderous, hacking at decaying bodies. The hummingbird sparks new life, carrying pollen to begin the next generation; the vulture is the harvester of death. And so we build meaning around them, the hummingbird a symbol of joy, light, healing, a bird of renewal, the cycle begun, while the vulture is cloaked with judgements sprung from our antipathy towards death and decay, often associated in lore with dark omens. Yet, there are cultures that consider the vulture a symbol of rebirth and maternity, for they are the birds that take death and transform it into the energy of being, into an entrancing spiral above our busyness, a sweep of wings across the sky, a quiet roost within the tree – they are the birds that create beautiful life out of demise.

I delight in both these birds of spring, the hummingbird suspended before a blossom, the vulture soaring above. But I must admit it is those scavenging black birds who have worked their way into my desert days and thoughts. Walking into the canyons during the heat of the afternoon, I see them hunting, sniffing out their next meal, ‘V’-shaped and gently rocking dark against the sky. I watched one plummet from a cliff top, tucked so neatly I thought for a moment it was a huge falcon; it pulled out of the dive and became again a rocking ‘V’. There was a pair that waltzed in the sky, pirouetting around each other with a glide, a flap, a soar; so nimble were they, at first I thought them ravens. Their dance lasted only a moment and then they were gone, disappearing as vultures do. Sometimes, when the wind is strong, the vultures will play in the currents, swooping across the valley and away and back in hardly a moment. But I’ve never seen the vultures dance with the thunderclouds as Jim Hook has. He’s watched the birds lift off their roost to ride the updrafts and “disappear into the belly of a storm and then drop back out again like rocks.” And you can’t help but agree, “it must really be fun!”

Yet, it is when the vultures circle just overhead that I am most mesmerized, especially when the sun slips through their pale-bottomed flight feathers, their body a dark cross between illuminated wings, looking as if they are held aloft by light. “Vulture,” I call in the same tone every time they come overhead, hoping they, like the ravens, will come to recognize me. Often, one or more of the birds moves close, circling above, small bare head visible, great wings stretched, stillness of body united with motion of flight – and I know I am under scrutiny.

The day has passed, evening has come, and the vultures drift in. For a moment they wheel directly overhead in their captivating spiral, then slide southward towards their roost, descending on the cottonwoods without a flap. At the last moment they raise their wings and with utmost grace, gently alight for the night.