Today we speak of vultures, those birds that thrive on carrion and carnage, handmaids to battlefield slaughter, useful yet unloved. Like cockroaches or rats, vultures, with their funereal garb, reach deep, churning up some atavistic wellspring of loathing. The grave, putrification, a specter of mortality with shabby black wings, a bald gray head, perfect for diving into road kill and pulling out the best parts. A hiss for a call, it is an unlovely creature, a creature of Poe.

One morning after fixing coffee I took my cup out on the porch. Looking at the skyline I was stunned to see that the tower nearest to our barn was host to large numbers of vultures. More wheeled overhead. A large tulip poplar next to the house had an even dozen roosting on a dead branch.

A small number usually roost on a power line tower about a quarter mile from the house. But that morning they were on all the towers, visible silhouettes giving rise to shades of Hitchcock.

Periodically they had tried to colonize the tower nearest the barnyard. Over the years I’d grab the pellet rifle and lob a few shots at them. It never took much to scare them off.

This morning was different. I’d shoot at one; it would fly off, perhaps with the bird sitting next to them. The rest just sat on their roost. I hollered. I made noise. I had been shooting at the black vultures with a pellet rifle for about ten minutes. The pellet rifle, a gift from my friend Jack, was a single pump .177 caliber. A weakling, it barely dented tin cans at thirty feet and I was taking pot shots at the vultures at over 100. There was just enough power at that distance to cause them to shake their wings and take off.

I could hear the soft thump as I hit them. Since they flew away I assumed no harm to the bird.

Some minutes into my shooting spree a shot sent one tumbling to the ground. Ten pounds of carrion eater bounced off the pylon as it fell, hitting the ground with an audible thump. I stopped shooting.

Cindy was up by the time I returned to the house.  I told her of my morning excursion. She asked if I had checked to see if it was dead. Embarrassed at that oversight, I said no. Grabbing the little 410 shotgun, I walked to the base of the pylon. The vulture was on the ground but still breathing. Putting the shotgun to my shoulder I pulled the trigger. 7:30 am is a loud time to shoot a shotgun. It is also an acute time for shame.

What is the point? We raise animals for food. We kill predators that threaten that food. I hunt. I am an omnivore who embraces a hands on approach with the food chain. Why should I care if dozens of vultures take up residence near the home? They are part of a natural process.

I do not know the answer. Crows would have been welcome as neighbors. Crows eat the dead, too. But crows are not vultures, condemned by their very appearance, a creature who too clearly signals death and decay.

Regardless of the reasons for my discomfort at their presence I no longer take potshots at vultures.

Hatching chicks: not the Hollywood ending

Looking through the fogged window, I spy a single eye peering back. Surrounded by shell, the hatchling has managed, just, to break out a dime-size portal into the outside world. The eye swivels as the chick gathers strength to peck at its shell. For 21 days, the shell has provided nourishment, protection and room. Now, an overcrowded, solitary chamber limits movement and life.

Eleven baby chicks are already hatched and under the brooder. One moves with more energy and peeps with enthusiasm. Waking from a brief sleep, I come downstairs to find it stretched out oddly, unmoving, beneath the heat lamp—the measure between life and death recorded in a 30-minute Sunday afternoon nap.

The eye still swivels as the chick peeps loudly from its confines, answered by four others in shells slightly cracked. Eleven empty shells in pieces mock their pipping sounds and efforts. Experience has given us knowledge that a chick aided in shedding its shell almost always dies. Nature provides this last hurdle to birth: Batter your way out of your fragile shell and you get a chance at life. Fail and the sounds fade away, and die out.

Forty-eight hours of fighting the confining shell, the peeping is still strong but growing less frequent.

Monday morning, six o’clock, I grab a plastic Kroger bag. Removing the cover to the incubator, I place the cracked eggs inside. Some emit peeps at the change. Swiftly I walk through the morning dew to the pond. How do you kill baby chicks that have not hatched, and won’t?
Not dwelling on the task, I reach in and toss them one at a time into the pond. They bob, fill with water and sink beneath the surface.

Later that day, the peeping of baby starlings breaks my focus at work. Later that night, a bird’s chirping turns out to be a bathroom fan in need of oil. I recite under my breath, “I admit the deed, tear up the planks. Here is the beating of that hideous heart.”