Dancing With Vultures

The Wild Kingdom’s Amazing Environmentalist

We awoke miles away from traffic, to a wonderful musical calligraphy of eagles and songbirds… singing in their natural habitat; April is an especially vocal time in the Pacific Northwest… pleasing and invigorating, perfect reason to enjoy camping at this time of year. I recall Chris, Rosie and I were the only campers in our favourite Nimpkish Valley hide-a-way, here on Northern Vancouver Island.

Valley snows melted away a few weeks before, replaced by lush new greenery heralding new generations of life. A nurturing time for wild kingdom’s inhabitants. Salmon berry bushes, fawn lilies, and more are blooming, bears are feeding on skunk cabbage, elk & deer have shed their antlers, and the annual rebirth of life has begun.

Our Home Away From Home. Not Fancy, Just Comfortable

Our intension that fine crisp Spring morning was to explore an open lakeside bush area a few kilometers away…. Simply put British Columbia has many natural wonders to enjoy. So with daypacks and cameras we set on a day of exploration.

Our Path Through Ferns, Moss, and Second Growth Fir & Western Hemlock Forest

It is was an easy 6 km walk through fresh air, on a narrow reforested road, then a relaxed 2 km stroll through spectacular second growth fir, moss, sword ferns and lichen,

Our Destination Nimpkish Valley Estuary

And imagine our surprise and excitement finding a “committee” of a six medium sized brown birds roosting along the edge of a remote bushed area. From a distance they looked like immature eagles, then as we edged closer, the identity became wonderfully apparent…. Turkey Vultures, a lanky brown bird weighing about 1.5 Kgs which is surprising for their 3/4 meter height. They have a wing span of about 1.8 meters). Particularly noticeable are small featherless red heads & upper neck, and thin white chicken like featherless legs.

These sharp pointed hooked beak birds are usually seen high in the sky, surveying their lofty domain, teetering from side to side, gliding effortlessly on thermal updrafts. We are fortunate to find them sitting near the ground on tree branch vantage points. Remarkable!

Inexplicably “Vulture” is a term symbolically attached to unscrupulous or odd human practices… slandering the bird’s good name with derogatory human behaviours such as: “vulture capitalist”, denoting a person who searches out or creates financial misfortune in others to profit. Even the Oxford Dictionary maligns this marvel of adaptation by defining vulture as “ a contemptible person who preys on or exploits others”. Despicable human behaviour totally misrepresentive of Nature’s character.

These birds are, in fact, highly evolved specialized ecosystem sanitizers… true environmentalists of the wild kingdom. They search out and eat carrion.

Related to the stork family Turkey Vultures are perfectly adapted for their environmental purpose. They are not nefarious or “Buzzards”. While these remarkable birds are flesh eaters, they do not kill animals themselves! They lack a physical body capacity and foot strength that raptors have. In fact they have to take a running start to get off the ground.

Rather they purposefully clean up after other “killing” meat eaters. They sanitize by eating animals that die from natural or other causes, left to decay and pollute. In this regard these extraordinary environmentalists do the dirty work of tidying up after death, helping to keep ecosystems and other animals healthy, and prevent the spread of disease…. A very noble purpose indeed.

Turkey Vultures figure prominently and kindly in many indigenous stories, about the origins of the bird’s physical features. Some give these fine birds magical life assisting powers. Some indigenous nations call this magnificent bird by the respectful name of “Peace Eagle”, in reverence to the fact this bird does not kill, and only consumes that which is already dead. Even their scientific Latin name “cathartes genus” means “breezy cleanser” or “golden cleanser”, a respectful name for one of nature’s important and gifted environmentalist of the wild kingdom!

A Beautiful Painting by T’Sou-ke First Nation Artist Mark Gunti..
© Mark Gunti 2022, Used with permission

Isn’t Mark Gunti’s Vulture picture terrific … Beauty is certainly captured in the eye of the beholder. Western culture look upon vultures with suspicious caution. It is interesting indigenous lore view this wonderful bird as a “Peace Eagle”!

To perform their essential ecological functions Turkey Vultures are doubly blessed with keen eyesight and sense of smell. Moreso than most other animals… It is believed they are able to spot a 90 cm carcass from 6.5 kilometers away….. To detect unseen carrion they have a highly developed olfactory center, that can “smell” carrion only 12 hour old from 1.6 kilometers away…even under a fir canopy. These cleaners will track the origin of the odor gliding high up in the air column and zeroing in on it by flying in circles. They can soar effortlessly for hours on thermal updrafts, traveling for hundreds of kilometers searching for carrion.

A Stately Turkey Vulture, Simply Wonderful

In regards to an odoriferous menu, Vultures are perfectly adapted to fight off infection within their own body defense mechanisms. Nature has been innovative and kind providing these cleaners with a singularly specialized immune and digestive system, that efficiently fights disease. The bird is also equipped with personal outer protective attributes that shields it when eating bacteria laced carrion. The small featherless “bald” head and upper neck resist absorption allowing the bird to insert a head completely into a carcass without feather sponging of blood and other body fluids. Surprisingly Turkey Vultures will defecate & urinate on their legs to “clean” and cool their bodies.

In short Turkey Vultures are an awesome bird of nature having a rare functional beauty fitting their noble ecological purpose in the wild kingdom. There are about 300 nesting pairs in British Columbia, laying up to three eggs in secluded hollows, rock crevices, log indentations. We are fortunate these wonderful environmentalists make an annual journey from southern areas to breed and clean right here on North Vancouver Island…

A remarkable day and remarkable find… a great hike

Safe travels.. Gordon Patterson

© 2022 All photos Gordon and Christine Patterson