Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Rising from the Dead: Vultures Return on Easter Day

Around Easter 2011 I was hiking alone up a steep hillside trail at Susquehanna State Park trudging up from the river to a beautiful historic farm at the top. I was thinking about an upcoming move to NH to work more intensely on my field research in bumble bees. Lost in thought, I suddenly had the feeling that I was not alone. I turned around and saw a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) with her white-tipped wings partially opened for balance, skipping hoppity-hop along behind me. I stopped, she stopped. I hiked, she followed. This went on for the next half mile until I made it to  where an old stone wall parallels the trail near the crest of the hill. Perched on the wall were over twenty black vultures, wings outstretched, sunning in warmth and light.  My hiking companion hopped into place on the wall, gave me a sideways cock of the head ( I swear I saw her wink), threw open her five foot wingspan and soaked up the rays.

Vultures do a lot of walking - and sometimes, hike. With me.

This is black vulture season when they come soaring back north to hang out with friends and family till fall. I love their presence here along the river, a little tame, wise, comical, friendly, social. During this season of renewal, I am reminded of the cycle of death and rebirth when I see them returning. Their range is expanding north, reflected in the shifting USDA growing zone map that places them comfortably in Zone 6 wherever it might reach, now well into Pennsylvania, New York, and the coastal zones of New England.

With tree buds about to burst, these black vulture buds are hanging out for fish heads at the fish cleaning station.

Black vultures have been pushing north for some time now, since the mid-1800s. There's a local anecdote that claims that the carnage at Gettysburg and other nearby Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia - where dead men and dead horses offered plenty of grisly fare  - drew the southern vultures north. But modern researchers think that shifts in range have been driven by local climate pattern change and have more to do with advancing springtime and a longer autumn. That's good news for expanding black vulture population but maybe not so much for the resident turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) that they may compete with for nesting sites. But along the Susquehanna there's plenty of food and nesting space  for everyone - hawks, eagles, and our two species of vulture.

A curious trail companion - black vulture along the River Road, Susquehanna River.

In other parts of the world vulture populations are subject to many different kinds of advance and decline, all of it human-assisted. In India entire populations of the revered white-rumped (Gyps bengalensis) and long-billed (Gyps indicus) vultures  have experienced a dramatic and devastating decline: dramatic due to the pain-killer drug diclofenac found residually in the corpses of humans and livestock and devastating because the Parsi people (and other ancient Persian and Asian cultures) have come to depend upon these enormous and sacred birds to remove their dead via 'sky burials.'  Although gruesome to some westerners - I won't post pictures of it in this blog - it suffices to say that the human corpse is respectfully returned to nature through a process of dismemberment carried out by funeral priests who then invite the vultures to the burial grounds for scavenging the remains.  In the Parsi tradition, burial grounds are enclosed as enormous vulture aviaries or towers, while in Himalaya cultures a high mountain meadow may serve the same purpose.

Parsi sky burial towers near what is now Mumbai with white-rumped vultures in attendance.  Circa 1900.

Dr. Lindsay Oaks, biologist and veterinarian working with the Peregrine Fund in the early 2000s, discovered the cause of the massive vulture die-off to be the pain-killer and sedative. India has since banned diclofenac but it is still used despite warnings not to. In some areas under observation by conservation enforcement and biologists, the decline seems to be slowing and vulture numbers stabilizing.  In 2011, the same year as my first Easter vulture hike,  Yeray Seminario, a biologist investigating the Asia Vulture Crisis posted a blog piece dedicated to Oaks who had recently passed. http://blogs.peregrinefund.org/article/688

My son engages a turkey vulture in a game of 'dip and tip' at the top of Mt. Monadnock, NH.

After reading about the Asia Vulture Crisis and having since followed the story for several years, I've come to truly appreciate the connection between people, our ideas of death and decay and faith, and cultural connections to these often maligned (in the west) but magnificent birds. I discovered that eastern U.S. native people, notably tribes who once lived in the river valleys and along river shores of Virginia and Maryland, often referred to vultures as 'Peace Eagles' since, they believed, at the time of human death, peace comes to every soul through the separation of physical body and spirit. Northeastern tribes mounted platforms in trees to hold the dead up high where winged scavengers and the the elements removed the flesh and released the soul.

Long-billed vulture. Photo Credit: Yeray Seminario, The Peregrine Fund. 

At Easter we immerse ourselves in ancient human themes of human death and spiritual resurrection and in nature we wonder how life returns so vibrant and green to landscapes only a few weeks ago frozen, death-like. I make time every Easter to go out and witness the return of black vultures to the Susquehanna Valley. Their presence reminds me that death is nothing to fear, that life returns spirit over and over again no matter what religion you hold to be true, or what side of the battlefield you fight for, or how brutal the winter might have been. What is not true is that death can be avoided - it comes to us all - that every living creature today will someday die. Our remains are given back to nature as dust, bone, or  ash which  will sooner (if you are given a sky burial) or later (stuffed into a coffin or jar) re-enter the earthly cycle with the assistance of  scavengers, microbes, insects, sun, and rain.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
- Ecclesiastes 12:7


Black Vulture Fact Sheet w/ range map showing expansion

White-Rumped Vulture Fact Sheet w/ range map showing contraction

Loss of the white-rumped and long-billed vultures and the sky burial tradition

The Peregrine Fund - Check out the work being done on the Asian Vulture Crisis and the restoration of California and Andean condors! 

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