When you work with wild animals, you deal with habituation. You try not to melt before the ball-of-fuzz baby turkey who awaits you at the door every morning. You shoo the freshly released songbirds who hang about their old aviaries when they are supposed to be flying free. You go to all lengths to prevent that nestling peregrine falcon from one day deciding that a human shoulder is a good perch.
But you overlook, in all your efforts, the strange process of your own habituation. You don’t have time to think about how a typical day at work may seem like the strangest exploit to an uninitiated friend. You take for granted things your friends would squeal at.
I am raking out the bobwhite’s cage on one such typical day when Virgil lands above me. I know without looking up because of the tremendous rush of air that precedes him, and the terrible scrape and the ruffle of feathers as he settles down. He pokes his wrinkled red head through the fencing of his flight cage, interested in my movements. The tiny white tip of his beak twitches this way and that, glancing at the rake, glancing at me. He probably heard me fussing about, and having no other entertainment at present, contented himself to hang with ‘the person’.
The bobwhite scurries out of sight, his little dumpling of a body vanishing behind a shelter. He was fine when it was all about food, yes, but now that it’s come to raking he suddenly has another engagement.
“Hey Virgil,” I whistle. He turns, and turns and turns, finds a comfortable spot, lifts his brown wings, and sits down. He flicks his head at the cadence of my voice: up, sidelong, through this gap, through another. The tip of his beak is curled down and sharpened to a point, but at the moment he is curious and interested, not ravenous. “Came to visit?”
Baby-talk: cooing, meaningless chatter. Sweet nothings, as they say. I pour out the water dish with a great splash, and the movement intrigues him further. He leans in. I coo. “Nice sunny day you have. What a beauty you are.”
He cocks his head, more a response to the pitch of my voice than to the meaning of the words, but I cannot help but wonder. He’s a beauty in my eyes, but who else would view him as I do? Who else would be found baby-talking to a turkey vulture?
Virgil, Templeton and Irving are two turkey vultures and a black vulture, respectively, who are permanent residents at a wild bird rehabilitation center where I have worked for two summers. They are just three of the charismatic birds on display at The Raptor Trust, whose collection of more than 50 non-releasable raptors includes bald eagles, peregrine falcons, great horned owls, and a raven named Jake.
The three vultures are imprinted on humans, and could never conduct a normal life in the wild. Their flight cage is between five other rehab cages and the infirmary, so visitors and staff alike pass them all the time. Children are fascinated by them. Adults ask about them. Volunteers wave to them on their way in and out of the building. And most reactions do not land anywhere near the expected revulsion.
I chat to them while I work.
What are vultures in our mythology? Omens of death are the least of it. They are filthy, ugly, dark scavengers. They feed on rotting things left behind, they profit where others have lost, they stink, and they sit in dead trees, hunched over branches, their bald, wrinkled heads slung between arched wings. They can be seen in graveyards on stormy nights. They roost in witches’ towers. Every time a death-knell tolls, a vulture gets it wings. Right?
Compare a turkey vulture—who, I suppose, to New World explorers looked somewhat like a turkey: ungainly and small-headed—to a peregrine falcon, and you may see where these stories arise. Both are raptors: both have taloned feet, long sharp beaks, enormous wings, and diets of meat. Both may be seen soaring in the skies. But peregrines are beautiful. Peregrines are swift, regal, deadly, rock-star birds—a black mask over the head like a crown, a blue-black robe along the back, bright gold feet and eyes as sharp as talons. Peregrines were the birds of kings, and these days, they have as many loyal subjects across the country who are devoted to preserving their line as did King Arthur in his day.
Virgil squats on his rug-perch, tilting his furrowed neck over the gap. It has just rained, and his feet are caked with wet sand from the puddle he was playing in. His feathers are dusty and brown. We meet in a brief glance, and his eyes, nondescript bulges from either side of his egg-shaped head, are soulful.
“You’re a pretty vulture,” I say. “Pretty bird.”
I can’t imagine any vulture out of history has heard the phrase before. He seems used to it. I am.
Every child fantasizes about working with animals, but few stick to their dream, for so many reasons. One is endurance, both of the physical and emotional kind: you have to take the bites, the scratches, the shrieks, the poop, the struggles, the cleaning, the raking, the sifting, the hiding, the injury, the painful healing, the re-injury, the illness, and yes, the death, with that one little moment of connection and of fulfillment. You have to give yourself over to that world, open yourself to the uncommon. Not all the cute animals want to be your friend, and not all of the ugly ones deserve to be overlooked.
The things that endear vultures to me are the things that most intrigue me in people. The things you learn about yourself because of an animal, no matter how unconventional, define you as a person. It comes naturally to me, to care for living thing that hops, runs, flutters or sidles over to visit. The person who can talk to a toad, apologize to a wasp, and let a snake go on its way with a twinge of admiration in his heart captivates me as a personality. The things we share with the living, and the once-living, and the soon-to-be living—wrinkly bald head or no—are the most important encounters of the time we walk the Earth. And these things, they stay with you. They are meant to.
Animals that are habituated to people are changed, usually for the worse. People that are habituated to animals are changed, usually for the better. You can let a wild animal be a wild animal, and still open you heart to vultures. Let yourself sit and watch the natural world, and not to try to take it up in your arms and hug it or save it from some perceived threat. Let yourself be habituated. Let yourself exist.
“Irving, you meany,” The black vulture plops down and bullies Virgil out of the way. The two jockey for a perch for a moment, and a wrinkly black head takes the place of the smaller red one at the fence. Virgil moves on with his day. Irving needs some adoration too.