Nature, Wearing Basic Black

In response to my recent post featuring turkey vultures on The Task at Hand, many commenters mentioned the presence of black vultures (Coragyps atratus) in their area. My certainty that I’d never seen one — or, at least, hadn’t recognized the ones patrolling the countryside — was clear from some of my own comments:

I’m still not sure if I’ve seen a black vulture. I may have seen them in the sky. Now that I know a little more about how to identify them, I’m going to have to look more closely.

In the end, I didn’t have to look closely at all. Only a week later, while hunting for berry-laden possumhaw, I glanced into the tangled thicket of trees and shrubs edging a canal, and there they were.

Some distance from the road and obviously comfortable on their limb, they seemed undisturbed by my presence as I left the car to watch them. I felt at the time I was watching a mated pair, and now that I’ve learned the species forms monogamous, long-term bonds, I’m even more certain of it.

For nearly fifteen minutes the bird I presumed to be the male stood, watching turkey vultures circling in the distance. His mate, obviously less interested,  eventually caught his attention by repeatedly opening and closing her great beak. His head-scratching response suggested she might have asked, “Why don’t you just sit down and enjoy this nice sunshine for a while?”

Perhaps because of her urging, that’s exactly what he did. When I left, the relaxed pair looked as if they might be settled in for a nap. An hour later, I found them still on their limb: apparently well-fed and happy.

In past days, I’ve seen other black vultures, both perched and flying. Clearly the fault has lain not with my eyes, but with my expectations and experience. After learning a new word, I almost always read or hear it in other contexts. The same apparently holds true in nature: the more we see, the more we see. Watching the vultures, I remembered with some amusement one of my favorite passages from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

Only children keep their eyes open… Matt Spireng has collected thousands of arrowheads and spearheads; he says that if you really want to find arrowheads, you  must walk with a child–a child will pick up everything.
All my adult life I have wished to see the cemented case of a caddisfly larva. It took Sally Moore, the young daughter of friends, to find one on the pebbled bottom of a shallow stream on whose bank we sat side by side. “What’s this?” she asked. That, I wanted to say as I recognized the prize she held, is a memento mori for people who read too much.


Comments always are welcome.