Monday, May 4, 2009


Much to say about vultures... Though they are rather ugly birds, they are said to be very graceful in flight. They have collided with cars, motorcycles, and planes, however, as they soar over large areas in their search for carrion. They find their food with a keen sense of smell, but have weak feet because they don't need to kill it themselves. Vultures are scavengers and have featherless heads so that they can remain hygienic during their messy meals, otherwise, bacteria from the carrion could cause infection - but interestingly, New World vultures defecate on their own legs as a cooling mechanism.

Vultures draw superstitious comparisons because of their association with dead things. When they are at rest, vultures sun themselves by holding their huge wings out like a vampire's shroud. Eating one of the birds is a folk remedy to cure syphilis. They are the butt of jokes about roadkill. But they clear away carcases before they can cause disease. And in Tibetan culture, their natural tendency is put to practical use: in a tradition called sky burial, dead human bodies are exposed to be eaten by vultures:
"For thirteen minutes the vultures are in a feeding frenzy. The only sound is tearing flesh and chittering as they compete for the best bits. The birds are gradually sated, and some take to the air, their huge wings sounding like steam locomotives as they flap overhead. Now the men pull out what remains of the corpse--only a bloody skeleton--and shoo away the remaining birds. They take out huge mallets, and set to work pounding the bones....The bones are soon reduced to splinters, mixed with barley flour and then thrown to crows and hawks, who have been waiting their turn. Remaining vultures grab slabs of softened gristle and greedily devour them. Half an hour later, the body has completely disappeared."

As Buddhists and believers in reincarnation, practitioners of sky burial are using the corpse - now to them an empty vessel - to sustain living things. They are also avoiding the difficulty of digging a grave in rocky terrain and the use of scarce resources to cremate the body. Here is a video of Tibetan sky burial. Because the birds themselves were becoming scarce, the Nepalese are also providing them with safe alternatives to their other fare.

The accompanying illustration is by John James Audubon (1785-1851). The Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo (caution) from 1994 features a vulture and was taken during the Sudan famine. And here you can listen to the sound they make while feeding. Possibly more than you wanted to know about these useful but creepy birds!

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