In Defense of Vultures

Turkey Vulture Sketch

A sketch from my field journal of a car-struck turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), July 17, 2012.

By Richard Telford

Author’s Note: This is the first in what I anticipate being a long series of posts on the natural history and conservation of vultures. While these posts will likely not follow a rigid order, I hope to eventually meld them into a longer, more substantive work titled In Defense of Vultures.


A light, easterly breeze bent the slender stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod that had emerged in early summer from the patchwork quilt of little barley and fescue, overtaking red clover and thistle long past their blooming. Just as the breeze undulated the complex fabric of disturbance obligate plants, so too did life itself undulate there, in short, complex cycles in which plant overtook plant, each bringing an equally complex host of pollinators, predators, migrants, and breeders, all quickly mortal in the short-lived life-burst of the summer pasture.

Such were the observations I recorded on July 22, 2012 as I sat on Lois Cole’s small memorial bench nestled among the trees in Monument Pasture in the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. By 1:30 the temperature had reached 80 degrees, and I sat adding species to a master site list while the raucous pasture music in all its forms reached its daily crescendo. Ten minutes later, a shadow at the periphery of my downward gaze drew it upward, first to the brightly lit mass of an old eastern white pine at the pasture’s southeast edge, then across the pasture itself, finally up to the azure sky marked by a scattering of cumulus clouds.

Perhaps thirty feet above, the penumbral form of a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) drifted in its rocking, dihedral flight, circling the pasture several times before disappearing beyond the tree line. This dihedral flight, in which vultures utilize thermal columns and expend little energy, allows them to outcompete facultative vertebrate scavengers. This evolutionary adaptation is critical for vultures, the only known terrestrial vertebrate obligate scavengers, and thus vultures serve a concomitantly unique systemic role. Vultures increase the energy cycling of natural systems, moving energy stored in carrion quickly through the trophic levels. They likewise serve a critical sanitation function. Despite historic, cultural maligning of vultures as filthy scavengers that spread disease, they in fact check the spread of carrion-based diseases, aided by a number of evolutionary adaptations.  These include exceptionally caustic stomach acid that can break down bacterially toxic carrion, featherless heads that resist the crusting of putrid flesh while feeding, and, in the case of the turkey vulture, acutely sensitive olfaction that will prompt rejection of the most toxic remains.

These and many other adaptations, some of which will be examined in subsequent posts, confer a unique ecological role upon the turkey vulture in particular and on the other 21 extant vulture species worldwide more broadly. Such niche roles necessarily create a duality for the species that fill them; while these species are especially critical to systemic function, they are also highly prone to extinction when the systems they occupy are disrupted. Such vulnerability is illustrated by precipitous population declines in the Gyps genus group in Asia and Africa, due principally to poisoning from livestock carcasses containing diclofenac, a commonly prescribed veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug which causes rapid renal failure in exposed Gyps vultures. The Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), for example, has suffered a staggering 99.9% population decline in India. These potentially catastrophic vulture losses will be examined more closely in a later post.

I focused little on the natural history or conservation of vultures on that warm July day. Instead, in my journal I noted the “low, lumbering flight, riding along warm air currents, still-winged and seemingly motionless.” The vulture was, I felt (and still feel), “an apt metaphor” for life, showing us the importance of “embracing life’s currents; changing direction by slow, deliberate degrees; conforming to the world’s parameters rather than trying to force the world to conform to our desired ones.” I concluded my observations by writing one simple word loaded with complex implications: “Magnificent.” Here was an illustration of the way in which scientific observation and emotional response cannot be fully separated, despite traditional calls for objectivity. In observing natural systems, how can we help but see ourselves, even if only through stark contrasts of what we may have been millennia ago, are at present, and may be in the future? Without such connections, how can we avert what Richard Leakey, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed the sixth extinction?

Five days after my initial turkey vulture observation at Monument Pasture, a shadow at the periphery of my gaze once again drew my attention. Driving home on state route 97, having finished a long morning of observations at Monument Pasture, a dark shape in the summer weeds at the road edge drew my gaze. A large wing rose up as I passed, and I could see the distinct, articulated wingtip feathers of a turkey vulture, likely car-struck. I pulled my car to the shoulder and walked heavy-heartedly back towards the vulture, its wings periodically unfurling, cutting the hot, dry air with the sound of delicate paper crumpling. I was distressed by the obvious suffering of an animal that, five days earlier, had evoked in me the deepest awe. I wondered if this could be the very animal that, days earlier, had silently circled Monument Pasture.

Reaching the vulture, I realized it was already dead; its bluish eyelid was drawn tight, a small heart-shaped pool of blood darkened the ground near its beak, its frame neither expanded nor contracted with breath. The light, broad wings that in life had allowed its effortless soaring now caught even the slightest breeze, drawing the splayed bird upward by inches only to drop it again like a downed kite. I quickly rough-sketched the vulture in its entirety, first feeling grief, then wonder, then gratitude. Realizing the gift of observation that this vulture had unwittingly given me through its death, I knelt beside it for another ninety minutes, painstakingly sketching its head, seeing the beauty of its graceful flight mirrored in the complex beauty of its functional adaptations. Gazing at this young vulture’s hooked, tearing beak, its bald head that would resist the caking of putrid flesh as feathers could not, its large, open nostril through which the ground beneath it was visible, it was clear to me why Thoreau, 158 years earlier in Walden, had written, “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” If we wish to avert the sixth extinction, perhaps the beauty of function must be invoked to foster conservation-mindedness as readily as the beauty of form.

Edwin Way Teale: Scientist, Artist, Interpreter

Teale in the Blind

Edwin Way Teale at work in the blind he constructed near Hampton Brook in his beloved home sanctuary, Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright, the estate of Edwin Way Teale, managed by the University of Connecticut Library System.  Used with permission.

When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.

Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” 1894

By Richard Telford

During the summer of 2012, I was fortunate to be enrolled in a field journaling course with Dr. Laird Christensen of Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, during which time I kept meticulous field notes for a period of six weeks while conducting observations in Monument Pasture, a site within the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut.  Teale, though largely forgotten by the reading public today, was one of the foremost living American naturalist writers by the time his Wandering Through Winter, the fourth in his four-book American Seasons chronicle, won the Pulitzer prize for nonfiction in 1966.

Teale’s lyrical passages had brought me to the home sanctuary he occupied with his wife Nellie, also an avid naturalist, from 1959 until Edwin’s death in 1980.  After Nellie’s death in 1993, Trail Wood, as the Teales had named it, was bequeathed to the Connecticut Audubon Society, as she and Edwin had agreed before his death.  Nineteen years later, nestled beneath the canopy of a mature eastern red cedar and a blighted black cherry, their branches long ago merged, I observed the workings of the former cow pasture that Teale had described in 1974 as having the appearance, in an aerial photograph, “of a circular piece of corduroy,” with “parallel lines [that] curve[d] around the slopes of the hill—the cowpaths left by the feet of generations of cattle.”

In the summer of 2012, red maple and pin cherry encroached upon the former pastureland on all sides.  Rough-stemmed and lance-leaved goldenrod blanketed the radiating slopes, interspersed with Deptford pink, Queen Anne’s lace, daisy fleabane, red clover, hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, and numerous other flower species.  Monarch, common wood nymph, and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies flitted in angular cuts from blossom to blossom. These species and many others I painstakingly identified and documented, working to understand the larger system of the pasture as a whole, and in this process I found a sense of discovery and of worth.

By the end of summer, asked by Dr. Christensen to reflect in essay form upon my journaling experience, I examined more closely the sense of worth I had derived from the process, trying to consider its value in a context beyond my own.  Late in the summer, I had lightheartedly titled my journal Notes of a Generalist.  Now, in my final course essay, I wrote:

In light of my awareness of the limitations of my own knowledge and of the scope of my study, I find myself asking the following question:  Is the knowledge of the generalist any less valuable than that of the specialist?

This question, in part, was driven by my desire to understand why Edwin Way Teale’s writings, so dually rich with natural history observation and deep insight on the human condition, have drifted into general obscurity.  More broadly, beyond Teale, I found myself questioning the existence of space in both the public consciousness and the scientific community for the likes of Edwin Way Teale or Sally Carrighar or Franklin Russell, naturalist writers who inspired their respective generations of readers but now seem largely displaced by a scientific community defined by acute levels of specialization.   As so often happens in the act of writing, my starting premise, a reflection on my own act of journaling, gave way to something unexpected, an essay I titled “In Defense of Generalists.”

During the following spring, in what felt like a minor instance of Jungian synchronicity, I was forced in a period of two days to face the naivety of my view that the generalist-specialist debate was the product of present-day complexities.  I had just acquired a long out-of-print first edition of Edwin Way Teale’s 1942 book Near Horizons: The Story of an Insect Garden.  In Near Horizons, Teale lauds the contributions of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, a consummate generalist who pioneered what we now understand as modern entomology:

“What we see is important, but so also is what we feel.  Here oftentimes is the dividing line between the scientist and the artist.  The scientist is intent primarily upon seeing accurately.  There his concern ends.  The artist sees, but he also feels.  Fabre at his best mixes reflection with observation and poetry with experiment.”

Here, Teale could as easily have been writing about himself.

The following day, while browsing one of my favorite old book haunts, the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, I found a copy of Donald Culross Peattie’s 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns, previously unknown to me.  I read through it for several minutes, moved deeply by Peattie’s acuity of observation, his melding of science and philosophy, his wrenching emotionality harnessed by a strikingly cold objectivity.  Shortly, I came upon the following passage:

It is my contention that specialization should be left to those who are not mentally gifted at generalization.  The specialist is to be called upon for precise information.  But there is still a place for the all-around naturalist.  His use to the sciences is correlative, his role, elsewhere, an interpreter’s.

It is no wonder that, sixteen years later, Peattie, in a review he wrote of Teale’s North with the Spring, would offer the following characterization:

Mr. Teale, who knows his nature more widely, it is likely, than any other professional photographer, cannot open his shutter without capturing a wealth of truth.

Peattie could see in Edwin Way Teale the scientist and the artist, the observer who could see and feel, just as Teale could see these capacities in Fabre.  While Peattie elevated the generalist above the specialist, Teale likely did not; the fact that he served as president of the New York and Brooklyn Entomological Societies, respectively, and likewise the Thoreau Society, bears this out. Still, Edwin Way Teale’s literary legacy makes a strong case for the critical role of Peattie’s “all-around naturalist” who can serve the role of “interpreter,” a role defined by Peattie and Crane with comparable eloquence.

Just as the three surviving men in Stephen Crane’s seminal short story “The Open Boat” can be interpreters of “the great sea’s voice” only after realizing their own insignificance in the scheme of nature, it is perhaps only the generalist, likewise forced through breadth of observation to face his or her own insignificance, who can foster conservation-mindedness in the broader public, acting not just as an interpreter but also a translator.