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.