Allegory of the Cave (via vultures)

A jumble of sandstone debris lies a few meters from the base of a high cliff. The rocky blocks are the size of wardrobes, small cars, houses. A fallen tree crowns the heap and thick grapevines crawl over its fissures. From a deep crevice, vapors of ammonia reach out and punch me in the nose: aha! Promising.

I clambered up here after seeing a black vulture take flight from a low branch above the rocks. Black vultures do not usually roost so low or in such deep woods. I suspected that the vulture might have an interesting reason for choosing this unusual slumbering spot. So I hauled myself onto the rocks, then tip-toed across their angled surfaces.

First the smell, then a beautiful sight: the random tumble of rocks created a passageway leading to a small underground chamber. If I crawled down there I could just about crouch in place or curl up on the ground to sleep. But going farther was out of the question. Rough-edged, deep hissing emerged from the gloom a few seconds after I peered down the entranceway. The message is clear enough: “Do not disturb.” Unheeded, the message will intensify, turning to a spray of hot vulture vomit. These parents want no visitors as they incubate their eggs. I backed off straight away.

A couple of weeks later I made another brief visit to peek at the hatchlings and to leave a small infra-red triggered camera in a rock crevice several meters back from the nest. I left the camera in place for 24 hrs to see what the parents were up to.

The young black vultures are just visible at the bottom of their rocky chute.

Young black vultures are just visible at the bottom of their rocky chute.

Fuzzy apricots. Mini-hissers. Vultures have no syrinx (the birds’ “vocal chords”) so they make sound by rushing air through their trachea.

Fuzzy apricots. Mini-hissers. Vultures have no syrinx (the birds’ “vocal chords”) so they make sound by rushing air through their trachea.

Attentive parents. they feed their young partly digested roadkill in the form of hot vomit. This is the vulture version of Mac-n-Cheese for the kids.

Attentive parent walking up the stony passageway. They feed their young partly digested roadkill in the form of hot vomit. This is the vulture version of Mac-n-Cheese for the kids.

A nighttime visitor: what appears to be an Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister). This species is one of the "packrats" that make big nests. It is in decline over much of its range due to habitat loss and raccoon-transmitted parasites. Woodrats love rocky jumbles.

A nighttime visitor: what appears to be an Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister). This species is one of the “packrats” that make big nests. It is in decline over much of its range due to habitat loss and raccoon-transmitted parasites. Woodrats love rocky jumbles.

Vultures are loaded with metaphor: they nest in tombs, lower than any other bird, foreshadowing their role as ecological undertakers. But when they walk out of The Cave of Childhood, they enter adult lives that are spent on the wing, avian prayer flags that fly higher than all others: defiers of gravity, lifting dead remains away from the pull of the  sepulchral Earth.

Evolution may have robbed vultures of their rightful inheritance as birds — voices and gay plumage — but it seems to me that they sing and shine nonetheless. The vultures’ response to these acrobatics would, I suspect, be a shrug of the dark wings. For now, a dead ‘possum delivered to eager mouths is philosophy enough.

Glaucon answers, Yes, very natural.

16 thoughts on “Allegory of the Cave (via vultures)

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      This was one of the “game cameras” that come in self-contained units. Just switch it on, put it in place, then come back to get it later and either retrieve the SD card with images or plug into USB. I used one of the ones that I’m taking down to teach with in GA this year, a replacement unit for another so I did not review the strengths/weaknesses of different brands. This is the one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003JTGH60/ref=oh_details_o05_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

      Reply
  1. country mouse

    Amazing! Well spotted. I love our local turkey vultures – they are a common sight circling over the chaparral and woodlands where I live, but no less wonderful for that. Now (having read The Forest Unseen) I always think of the plumes of scent rising to them from dead things below – thanks for that image, conveying an unseen part of life around me – enriching my experience of the natural world.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you! Glad to hear that you’re seeing them in a different light. I’ve come to appreciate these birds more and more. Just amazing creatures. Seeing the nest was remarkable.

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Fascinating! I love watching these birds circling overhead, and we hd a visitation of sixteen a few years ago when we had to shoot an injured bear, but have never even thought of their nesting. Thanks for giving us these photos.

    Reply
  3. LibD

    We have a pair of turkey vultures that I think nest close to us, but I never thought to dig into their nesting habits….fascinating! On the Precambrian Shield, we have lots of rock! We attracted a marvellous show of upwards of sixteen vultures a few years back when we had to shoot an injured bear and left him, per nature, in the bush.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      That sounds like a powerful event, loaded with pain and hard beauty. The end of a life, then the other animals come in to do what they’ve been doing for millions of years… Remarkable.

      Reply
  4. Erin

    So, you’re working on an ode to vultures as your next book, right? I love how you imbue them with such poetry. Or rather, that you transcribe their natural poetry in words people can read.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, Erin. I love your image of transcription of natural poetry.

      The next book is not (as I think of it now) about vultures, but I would not be surprised to see them wing their way onto its pages. They seem to keep showing up in my life at the moment. Them and golf balls (!)

      Reply
  5. mowque

    I’ve lived next to turkey vultures my entire life but never knew they nested in such locations. Is this normal behavior all throughout their North American range?

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Yes, they love rocky piles and caves. The Birds of North America account says of the nesting habits of TVs:
      “Lays eggs in dark recesses in great variety of sites”
      and for Black Vs:
      “Uses wide variety of nest sites, but nests typically in dark recesses or under cover of some sort. Caves, hollow logs, stumps and tree trunks, crevices among rocks, brush piles, thickets, abandoned buildings, and sites beside or under trees and logs are all used.”
      So dark caves seem to be their favorite!

      Reply
  6. Karen Pick

    We don’t have black vultures this far north and I only got my first good look at turkey vultures in New England this spring. Scores of them! A thrilling adventure! And while I may have seen one or two turkey vultures at a great distance over the mountains of Québec’s Charlevoix region, I had certainly never seen any close to Québec City, where I live. However, two weeks ago, across the street from a small urban park located on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River, I happened to look up. Five were suspended perhaps fifty yards from me, not many feet above the trees. At first I thought they were kites! It was a muggy day and there had been frequent showers. The thermals must have been tremendous, because they drifted in more or less the same formation until they disappeared below the tree line, and probably below the bluff, without ever flapping a wing. I stood there and watched them, aliens, devoid of deliberate motion yet perfectly synchronized, in a place where there was (remarkably) no traffic, hence very little sound, immersed in air I could almost grasp, the combined effect one of sheer wonder. Ordinary life was momentarily suspended (and yet these are the moments that should be ordinary!) and I felt happily insignificant. Even so, a “thank you” spontaneously erupted, a prayer I couldn’t contain. Your beautiful entry has brought that moment back to me, except that now it’s better! “Avian prayer flag” is not a term I’ll soon forget. Thank you for deepening my appreciation of these birds.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this moment of pure delight.

      I think the vultures are expanding northward, so maybe more kites and prayer flags will be appearing soon.

      Reply

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