Not as Spooky as They Seem
I'm not a very superstitious person, but a few winters ago when 20+ vultures came to roost in the trees behind my house, I was slightly freaked out.
I had no logical reason to be afraid; the vultures stayed up high in the trees and were clearly not interested in people. But seeing all those ominous-looking birds congregating together got me thinking about death and bad omens. For the next few days I worried that something bad was going to happen.
Many people and cultures associate vultures with death. And it makes sense; if you've seen a vulture before, it was probably eating something dead! The job that vultures do seems to strike most people as disgusting or even cruel, although it is important to the ecosystem. We often use the term 'vulture' in a derogatory way to describe individuals who take advantage of other people's misfortunes, for example. Some people even believe vultures can sense when another creature is about to die, circling in the sky above and waiting for its death. Although that isn't true, it is pretty typical of the ideas humans have about these big black birds.
Unfortunately, beliefs like this can make it difficult to appreciate vultures. Most people don't even like think about death, let alone try to see the beauty of an ungainly bird that is built to consume it. To be honest, it took me a while to get past my initial discomfort with vultures' raggedy feathers, hooked beaks, and scaly-looking heads.
One thing that helped me warm up to vultures is the fact that they are such social creatures. Until I saw them congregating in my backyard, it had never occurred to me that they weren't just creepy, solitary animals. But vultures spend a lot of time in groups—and we have some wonderful words to describe when this happens. A group of vultures circling in the sky together is known as a kettle, while a group of vultures perched in a tree is called a committee. And a group of vultures that descend to feed together is called, fittingly, a wake.
Vultures exhibit complex, hierarchical social behaviors, and family bonds are important to them. They usually mate for life and care for their young for quite a long time after they fledge. On a few occasions recently I've been able to watch them interacting in groups, and I was surprised at the endearing behaviors I saw. They preen each other, squabble over who gets the best perch, and sometimes come across as genuinely playful.
I also visited a wildlife rehabilitation facility that cares for injured birds earlier this year, and meeting their resident vulture removed any doubts about whether I could ever truly like vultures. Still a juvenile when he was injured, the vulture at the rescue facility had spent most of his life around people. He was remarkably intelligent, curious, and almost petlike, hopping and flapping around awkwardly in his little harness/leash combo. His keeper said he liked to sit with her and watch cartoons when they were inside the facility.
Since then, I see vultures in a completely different way. I still love to capture them in black and white because they make for such moody images, but lately I've enjoyed creating color portraits that I think better illustrate how harmless and uniquely beautiful vultures are.
The more I tried to look past my ingrained cultural beliefs about vultures, the more I could see to appreciate about them. So for my Halloween post, I'd like to invite you to keep an open mind about vultures and consider that they really aren't as spooky as they seem.