|A Days Work
By Sonia Linebaugh
Friday morning wakes to the sound of a heavy vehicle under a gray, wet sky. The squeal of brakes identifies the county trash truck making its way down our narrow road to clear the debris of 21st century living.
As I reluctantly head out on my own workday, I catch up to the truck with its enormous capacity for household castaways. The driver waves me by. I wave back and glance up to catch sight of nature's work crew.
Black vultures, two dozen of them, roost high in bare branches. On this rainy morning they are caught in the chill air, waiting without complaint for the coming of day to warm their wings into motion. Bare heads tucked into shoulders, they are rare birds in their need for external heat. Feathers stick out at odd angles to catch some rays.
Ugly. That's one word for these cumbersome birds. Ungainly. They perch heavily on leafless branches, together yet spaced out like cars in a parking lot, no one touching another. Silent silhouettes braced against the dreary sky. As warmth comes, wings spread and close again. Spread and close. Getting ready for the day's work of searching and eating.
Disgusting. That's an accusation I've heard against these flesh eaters. Yet these graceless birds do not kill small animals like the raptors we so admire: the eagle that nests near Rockhold Creek in Deale, the red-shouldered hawk that awaits some mouse or bunny from a perch on a telephone wire, the sharp-shinned hawk that pounces down on the song birds at the backyard feeder. The vultures do not dive like the beautiful osprey into Bay waters to rise with a gasping fish in their talons.
But like the raptor, vultures play their role. This morning, they perch and they wait. As the day warms their wings into action, they'll take flight, soaring wide-winged above the tree tops, searching, searching for the wrecked lives of muskrat, raccoon, skunk, rabbit, deer, bird, cat or dog tossed carelessly to the pavement by the relentless crush of cars driven by people like me hurrying to play my role in the world of work.
For black vultures, the work is done alone or in small groups. More homely than their redheaded relatives who glide for long distances without flapping a wing, these vultures are stockier. Their wings flap heavily between short glides. Their wingspan, a foot shorter than the turkey vulture's, shows whitish underneath near the tips. Once smell has proclaimed a feast, the vultures gather to squabble over fresh road-kill, tearing, swallowing, digesting the carrion in enthusiastic disregard of human sensibilities. They hop to one side or flap to the lowest branch of some tree until an inconvenient car passes by. Then they turn again to the job, eating to survive as nature has instructed.
As evening settles in, so do the vultures. The work day done, I drive back down Fairhaven Road for some settling in of my own. I slow to watch the birds gliding home, coming in on a landing pattern over the field behind their small patch of woods. They pull in their huge wings as feet reach for thick branches. Not a twig is disturbed. Some birds jockey for position, pushing others out of a favored spot or moving from one branch to another before closing down for the night. Twenty-seven birds, this count. A neighbor has counted as many as 32.
This stretch of Chesapeake Bay country is a good environment for vultures. Tomorrow will bring more work, more food, another chance for survival.
Sonia Linebaugh, formerly associate editor at Bay Weekly, writes from Fairhaven Cliffs, where - inspired by an article in her old paper - she counted 226 birds in an hour and a half of bird watching spread over four days for the Great American Backyard Bird Count. Eleven cedar waxwings were the best surprise. The vultures were the most intriguing. Find more information about the count at www.birdsource.org.