Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Vulture

The whole thing happened because being the mother of the groom over-taxed my mental and emotional resources, so I accidentally let a 3-lb. pot roast sit in the refrigerator until it went bad. To assuage my guilt, I returned it to the circle of life by throwing it into the ravine running alongside my little plot of land.

A day or so later a vulture walked the length of my backyard, straight down the middle of it. She walked quickly, head down, like an executive hurrying to make a report at a board meeting. That evening she returned straight up the middle of the backyard and disappeared into the underbrush. She repeated the round trip for several days, and each time, the cats turned their backs on her. After all, if they didn’t see the bird in their territory, they couldn’t be expected to do anything about it. An adult vulture is scary-normous.

At first I assumed she was just an eccentric, but eventually I saw that one wing was hanging wrong, and my heart went out to her. I also saw that I was in for it. Sure enough, after the pot roast was gone, the bird stayed. She was hungry, and her resources were severely limited.

My father taught me that our responsibilities for an animal must be taken seriously even when we don’t choose or want those responsibilities. I’d accidentally fed her, so she settled on my land, which made her my responsibility.

A few days later, while I was still learning about portion sizes, she finished what I gave her and then tapped her beak on the plate three times real hard: RAP! RAP! RAP! Then she raised her head and stared intensely and very vulturish at me. It was one of the most unnerving things I’ve ever seen, so I ran to obey, shouting, “Seconds! Yes! Seconds coming up! I’m getting it; I’m getting it!”

The day she just picked at the ground beef I’d been giving her, I ransacked the fridge for something else, and then cut up a hot dog I had handy. She spit the first piece out. Then she tried and spit out each one of the other pieces.

“Guess I messed up,” I said. “But in the interest of science, you’ve just confirmed something an allergist once told me: hot dog is a non-food.” Then I grabbed my pocketbook and drove to Bi-Lo to get her something else. My responsibility.

She expressed enthusiasm for pork ribs, but I later learned that if you want to see a vulture in raptures of delight, just offer him or her six chicken livers on a salad plate.

Over the following weeks, I called two veterinarians, an animal control officer, a raptor rehab center, a veterinary hospital, and miscellaneous other people as I followed a long string of referrals. Along the way I learned that bird wings have a poor blood supply, so a badly broken wing like this one dies quickly and eventually drops off. (In fact this vulture started stepping on the tip, trying to remove it herself.) I also learned that people don’t like or want vultures because, to regulate their temperature, they mess themselves, their excretion gets everywhere, and it’s highly toxic to plants. But if I could get her to the veterinary hospital, a two-hour drive away, the vets would amputate the wing, and then they’d move her to the raptor rehab center, where she would spend the rest of her life. Just throw a blanket over her and bring her in, they said.

My son and I then spent several fruitless afternoons chasing a vulture around the yard with a blanket. It turns out vultures can run faster than we can. So we tried various tricks. Vultures are smarter than you might think.

So I started feeding her in a large dog carrier, to get her used to going inside it. I’d tied a fishing pole to the door so in theory I could capture her by pulling on the pole to swing the door shut while standing a non-threatening six or eight feet away. But as soon as the door started moving, she’d be out of the cage and furious, attacking the towel I'd placed under the cage to stabilize it. Then I’d have to move the cage somewhere else and disappear into the house before she’d go into the cage again. After a week or two all would be forgiven or forgotten, and I’d try again and fail again. Time kept passing.

Conversation with her was too awkward without calling her something, so I decided to call her “Stacy,” which means “one who shall rise again.” I don’t know if she learned to associate the word with herself—more likely to her it meant food or feeding—but she definitely learned it. Because if she wasn’t around when her breakfast was ready, I couldn’t put it out there because of some neighborhood dogs who had taken an interest, so I’d open a window and shout, “Stacy! Stacy!” and she’d come running. It may be a diminishment for a wild bird to come because a person calls, but I confess that after 25 years living with children and cats, I found it a refreshing change.

Opening a door to find a vulture standing there is a remarkable experience.

Opening the door to find an annoyed vulture standing there is a disturbing experience.

Watching her spread her wings to dry in the sun made me thank God for thinking up such a thing. But my favorite was the morning the vulture, one of the cats, a stray dog, and I sat together in the driveway, digesting our breakfasts and enjoying the cool morning air after the previous night’s hard rain.

The vulture’s favorite spot was a raised flower box in a recess by the
front door. At about 24” off the ground, it was the highest spot she could get herself to, and since my house stands on a hill, she must have felt relatively high and safe with the brick wall at her back and a clear view of the houses across the street and the river stretched out below them. I laughed each time I heard the slamming of car brakes down on the road, knowing that someone had just caught sight of her looming over the landscape from her flower box.

One day an insurance adjuster came to take pictures of the house, so I walked with him around to the front yard to warn him about the bird so they wouldn’t alarm each other.

“I guess I should tell you,” I said, “that there’s a vulture.”

That seemed like an inadequate explanation of our situation, so I tried again. “I mean, there’s this vulture.”

That didn’t seem much better, but since we’d gotten within sight of her, I pointed to Stacy, who was leaning forward to peer at us from her recessed flower box.

The insurance adjuster screamed, which made Stacy rumple her feathers.

When he’d calmed down enough to be coherent, he said he’d seen her when he drove up, but assumed she was plastic. This rumpled me. He’d thought I was some kind of loony who’d gone out of her way to buy a big plastic vulture to put in a flower box. I mean, really.

He took pictures of her and then brought a car-load of his co-workers back the next day to see her on their lunch hour.

I worried what would become of her when the cold weather set in, if I couldn’t get her to the hospital before then. I was going out of town for a week near the end of the summer, so shortly before I left, I called the raptor rehab center to make sure they were still willing to take her, and then the veterinary hospital to tell them to expect her the next morning. The plan was to feed her less the day before the trip so she wouldn’t have much in her stomach, since several people had warned me there was a good chance I’d never use my car again after the trip because of the defense-mechanism raptors have: Projectile Vomit of Utter Vile.

She knew something was up. In fact, she was antsy around me for 24 hours before the attempt. People use the term “bird brain” to mean “not very bright,” but if anyone has a bird brain, you’d think it would be a bird, and this one knew. Maybe she sensed I was nervous. Maybe she sensed I was grieving. Maybe the problem was that I wasn’t certain my plan of fear, pain, and loss of freedom was best for her. But probably none of those things made any difference. She went into the cage, I swung the door shut, and there she was on the other side of the yard, still swallowing. I couldn’t even see that fast, much less move that fast.

Then the car acted up, I had to take it into the shop before my trip out of town, and that was that. The bird and I were stranded at home together. So I starting feeding her more than usual, and when the car came home I told some willing people across the street about her dietary preferences, I said goodbye to her, and I left town. They later told me she left the area shortly after I did, returned for a day or so, and then disappeared for good. They’d managed to feed her a few times, but figured she probably got killed by another animal.

I searched the neighborhood and called, but I never saw her again. Maybe a short life and a free one was best for her, but I don’t know that. I think I did everything I could for her, but I don’t know that either.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d caught her during that last attempt, not knowing that my car was on the verge of breaking down. I can just see me trudging on foot up I-75, lugging a vulture in a cage.

“Looks like you could use a mite bit o’ help, Ma’am,” a nice trucker would say. “What’s that you’ve got in the— Oh, @#$%!

As he peels off, I get struck in the forehead with a small piece of gravel, and when the fog clears, I have no idea who I am or why I’m walking along an interstate with a vulture.

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of adult life.


  1. Ha, that is SO funny. I would have LOVED having a vulture in my yard like that. I'm sad she disappeared, though! I really enjoyed this post...

  2. Thank you, Kelley. I loved her very much and have missed her this past year. At least she's flying again, in heaven. (At least, according to C.S. Lewis' theology, and that's good enough for me.)

  3. Oh Mela. A great story, for sure. You learned the lesson from your dad quite well, I think :) AND, I can see a story in this for my website (or www)...c'mon, lady, you can do it!

  4. But apparently I didn't learn my mother's lesson-- I can practically hear her voice in my head saying, "Whatever you do, don't FEED it!"


  5. This was hilarious! And something I can see my sister & me getting into. I'm glad Page shared your blog with me!

  6. If you mean that you and your sister care for other lives, bless you both for being good people. If you mean that you're prone to getting yourselves into predicaments, you have my heart-felt sympathy. If caring for other lives keeps getting you into predicaments, we may be soul-mates, perhaps even padded-cell neighbors some day. Thank you for the feedback. I love having readers.

  7. I had difficulty with the fact that I was contributing to the ill-treatment of pigs (highly intelligent and sensitive animals) by purchasing pork to feed the vulture. Doing the right thing is just so complex.

  8. Pam, I really enjoyed reading your vulture 'story'. You have a way of expressing yourself that is so fresh and delightful. I'm glad to get to know you as a very caring person.

  9. I'm grateful for the technology that has given me a voice, and for people like you who turn these posts into a conversation. Thanks, Mareta.


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