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Katie Fallon is the author of “VULTURE: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird.” In an interview with WVPB reporter and Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd, Fallon explains while most humans may not like vultures, without them, our interstates and roads would be overflowing with disease, garbage and dead animals.
“I think vultures are sort of a perfect creature,” Fallon said. “They don’t kill anything. They do a really good job cleaning up our ecosystem. They’re sort of the ultimate recyclers.”
She was first drawn to these birds through her work rescuing birds of prey and other migratory birds.
Eventually she and her husband opened the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, a non-profit animal sanctuary and rescue center located in Morgantown, West Virginia, that has helped save hundreds of vultures that have been injured and then released them back into the wild.
Fallon said the vultures that are treated by the center have a quiet curiosity about them.
“They really seem to be looking at you and trying to figure things out,” she said. “They’re very timid birds, and I think they’re very charming, in a lot of ways, just in their manner of being curious and quiet.”
To many people, vultures are ugly creatures without much to admire. Even Fallon admits, “they’re maybe not as beautiful up close, or they look kind of wrinkly, but they’re very beautiful when they’re flying.”
But not all cultures have given vultures the bad reputation that many people do today. As Fallon describes, ancient Egyptians were actually very fond of vultures. They believed that all vultures were female. Part of the reason for that may be because both the male and the female take care of the young. Males and females also look look alike in a lot of vulture species.
“[Ancient Egyptians] also observed vultures regurgitating bloody bits of food and they believed that the female vulture was actually harming herself and feeding her babies her blood and her flesh,” Fallon said. “So female vultures…became the ideal mother in the eyes of many ancient Egyptians.”
Eventually, vultures became the symbol of the protection of the pharaoh. Fallon said vulture iconography is found in many tombs.
“So in a lot of tombs, you can see up in the corner a vulture with her wings spread, and carrying a round symbol in her talons, which is called the shen, which is the symbol of eternity,” she said. “So vultures creating life from death, in kind of a perfect cycle, things die and the vulture eats them, then lives, and creates more life.”
The vulture was also the goddess who protected women in childbirth because the ancient Egyptians believed they were such ideal mothers.
In this interview Fallon also discusses:
- The Hinckley, Ohio buzzard festival, where vulture enthusiasts celebrate the migration of these birds
- The difference between the words “buzzards” and “vultures” (hint, there are no real buzzards in North American)
- How vultures clean up diseases from the ecosystem, neutralizing diseases like anthrax and botulism when they eat roadkill