I’m into vultures.
Well, actually, I’m into wildlife in general, but vultures are one of those groups of animals that stand out for me. There’s something magnificent and majestic about them; I love to watch them roost, and eat, and fly, and I don’t find them ugly or despicable as so many people do.
Vultures are misunderstood by the masses, who often see them as disease carrying (not true!), evil (certainly not true – how can an animal be evil?), greedy (wouldn’t you eat quickly if someone else was likely to come along and steal your dinner?), and generally loathsome. Vultures are actually beneficial to human society – without them, disease becomes more widespread because no one is eating the things that spread it.
In general, vultures are divided into two groups – the Old World vultures and the New World vultures. The two groups are not directly related, but they exhibit similar behaviors due to convergent evolution which is the development of similar features, characteristics, or behaviors in creatures whose lineages are dissimilar. Flight in birds and bats is a classic example of this. Both Old World and New World vultures have a wide wingspan for soaring and a specialized beak with a hooked end for eating carrion. Most also have a head that is either bald or covered in very short feathers.
Around here, in Southeastern Pennsylvania, we have two species of New World vulture: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the black vulture (Coragyps atratus). The turkey vulture used to be the more common of the two, but we’re seeing way more black vultures lately, due to whatever-you-want-to-call-it-that-is-making-things-warmer. They’re quite simple to differentiate while roosting…
…and also in flight…
See? Different wing shape, different tail shape, different head shape – it’s amazing that people mix them up! Okay, I’m kidding, but you get the point.
Black vultures are gregarious in nature, while turkey vultures tend to be loners and, funnily enough, black vultures often find a meal by following turkey vultures – a turkey vulture’s sense of smell is so good it can detect carrion in as small as a few parts per trillion – and then chasing them off a carcass.
(I had a laugh in Google Hangouts yesterday about watch-vultures in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world – a turkey vulture could certainly smell zombies coming and then could most-likely neatly dispose of the body without getting infected. Of course, turkey vultures are also known to regurgitate when frightened.)
My admiration for vultures was shared by the Ancient Egyptians – Nekhbet, the patron of Upper Egypt, was depicted as a vulture, and records show that her priestesses wore robes of Egyptian vulture feathers. The goddess Mut was often shown with with the wings of a vulture, wearing the crown a united Egypt. In addition, there are several distinct hieroglyphs containing a vulture symbol.
Two different types of vultures are used in these hieroglyphs…
…and there are three others native to Egypt:
Vultures are amazingly wide-spread, which is one of the reasons they show up so often in mythology and folklore in general. Outside of Ancient Egypt, I found mention of them in stories and myths from the Middle East, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, India, North and South America, and West Africa. I’m sure there are others as well, and I’d love links if anyone has them!
While writing this, I started thinking of the vultures I see routinely (turkey and black) and thinking about their habits, and that got me thinking about comparing vultures to pagans. There are the hermit pagans, who prefer to go it alone and will group up only when necessary, like the turkey vulture, and then there are the gregarious pagans who relish being in a group and working within that dynamic, like the black vulture. I know both types – hell, I straddle both types. I don’t think there’s anything to be demonstrated with this comparison, though, other than the fact that our differences are what make the world go round…and the same can be said in the raptor world.
It takes all kinds, you know?