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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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A Vulture for Abbey

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A few years ago I discovered Edward Abbey's hilarious and provocative book, The Monkey Wrench Gang. It was the wild and wooly story of a small group of out-of-control environmentalists who went on a destructive rampage and how they were pursued by a remorseless and depraved law officer. I remember how much I wanted Jeff my oldest son to read the story but alas, he was in his teens. I didn't want him to take the book literally and blow up Grigg's dam.

Abbey died in 1989, but I didn't give a whole lot of further thought to him until late in 1994 when I read a review of Confessions of a Barbarian, a volume of selections from his journals edited by David Petersen, in the Book Review Section of the New York Times.

As a result of this renewed exposure to Abbey, within the space of a month or two, I obtained a number of his other books that were still in print and I proceeded to read through them one by one.

The titles I now have are: The Brave Cowboy, Black Sun, Fool's Progress, Desert Solitaire, Abbey's Road, and The Best of Edward Abbey. In Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, James Bishop, Jr., quotes a selection from Down the River, a book of essays in which Abbey ponders his own life after death:

"For a lifetime or two, I think I'll pass on eagle, hawk or falcon this time, I think I'll settle for the sedate career, serene and soaring, of the humble turkey buzzard. And if a falcon comes around looking for trouble, I'll spit in his eye. Or hers. And contemplate this world we love from a silent and considerable height."

According to Bishop, "When a vulture is seen soaring over the canyon country, someone will say, 'Abbey lives.' After all he did predict it."

In Desert Solitaire, Abbey expanded on these thoughts when he was talking about a person dying of thirst:

"See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering. For most of us a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal."

So be it. Actually, the two species that occur in Ohio, the turkey and the black vultures are birds that I cast a favorable eye upon. As a matter of fact, the vicinity of the Clear Creek Valley is one of the northernmost outpost of black vultures in the United States.

As for the turkey vulture (or buzzard), it is quite common throughout most of Ohio, and even in the Clear Creek Valley it is more numerous by a ratio of at least 20 to one than its cousin.

Turkey vultures boast a wingspan of from six to seven feet and all that aerodynamic surface proves to be extremely useful as they course along ridges utilizing updrafts and ride the thermals rising from fields and highways. With the subtlest manipulation of their flight feathers, they can soar effortlessly for hours on end in their quest for their next meal. Dead animals are what they eat, their diet consisting mostly of road kills, animals that have been mortally wounded by hunters and poachers, and animals that have died from disease or been killed by predators other than humans. Most of the road kills they dine on are along country roads because both vulture species are savvy enough to stay away from heavily traveled highways.

Most people are unaware that turkey and black vultures have been known to kill and eat immature birds and animals. Occasionally, they have also been observed eating fruits and vegetables. Maybe they are on their way to becoming vegetarians!

Most of the time, however, in satisfying their own appetites with carrion, vultures become sanitary engineers for the rest of us. They locate their meals through the combined use of their extraordinary vision and an acute sense of smell.

Vultures have another endearing quality. In extremely hot weather, they will wet their legs with their own urine, thereby cooling down their body temperature.

Which brings to mind an incident a birding companion and I observed one September day on the south side of Columbus. We were headed for the city disposal plant which sometimes is a good place to find shorebirds and waterfowl. It is adjacent to a rendering plant, both sites located along the banks of the Scioto River. There are also gigantic landfills nearby, a trash burning power plant that was shut down because it was emitting dangerous amounts of dioxin, a men's workhouse, and a women's workhouse. A really up-scale neighborhood, you can see. As we passed the rendering plant a beat up truck with a tarp over the truck bed turned into the entrance.

A few minutes later, while we were looking at some sandpipers at the disposal plant),we saw four or five turkey vultures winging their way northward, making a bee line for the rendering plant.

It was only at home, later in the day, while I was working on the day's checklist that a question suddenly crossed my mind. Were the vultures following that truck, which most assuredly had one or more dead carcasses in it?

Another thought occurred to me. On past trips to the area, I had frequently seen turkey vultures flying in the vicinity of the rendering plant. Could it be they are attracted to the area by the smells emanating from that unsavory place? They might be. But I feel assured that Edward Abbey isn't one of them. He's out in the southwest, isn't he?

Oh, yes, about twenty-two years later, I finally got around to giving Jeff a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang.


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