Bird

In Praise Of Vultures

I go for walks in the country often this time of year here in the Rio Grande Valley. This is our Goldilocks season. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.

We have a perfectly warming sun in the crisp, cool air of winter mornings. I like to walk along a dirt road that has freshly plowed farmland on one side and a deep motte of mesquite and huisache trees on the other. A committee of vultures watches me from atop  the tallest of these trees, far away from civilization. That’s the official name for a group of vultures. A Committee. Sometimes they are also called a venue of vultures. I like that. Based on what I’ve seen of committees and their venues I can see the salience of the metaphor.

In Texas, these birds are often mistakenly called buzzards. This is common but it’s technically wrong because buzzards are completely different birds. We don’t have buzzards in Texas, though I will admit to calling them that myself growing up. I don’t recall referring to groups of birds by their correct labels, either – such as murder of crows or covey of quail or flamboyance of flamingos. I still don’t. I tend more toward my brother “redneck Dave’s” lexicon which is pretty much reduced to the word “bunch.” He says, “You got a bunch of ducks in your yard.” And if there’s more than that he says, “You got a whole bunch of ducks in your yard.” More still are covered by, “You got a mighty big bunch of ducks in your yard.”

Back to the vultures. This committee of vultures – turkey vultures in this case, are perched high up in the trees, like undertakers –  eyeing me – sometimes stretching out their wings to display their impressive six-foot span. But mostly I’m a curiosity, not a disturbance. They don’t fly away. I’m sure I would be much more interesting to them if I were dead.

Turkey Vultures don’t have a lot of fans. Many people see them as disgusting birds that eat disgusting things. They have red heads. They’re mostly bald, with faces that only a mother could love – a mother vulture, that is. On the ground picking through road kill, they look ungraceful and ragged and ungainly. But in the air, they are, to me, transformed into graceful, heart-stirring masters of the wind. On the ground they are called committees, but in they air they are called kettles of vultures because in their swirling ride upward on the thermals, they look like bubbles rising in heated water. Ornithologists, bird experts, tell us that it is by riding high on the thermals that they hunt for carrion, or dead things. But they don’t do it  by sight. They do it by smell. The smell of the decaying animals is carried up by the thermals and the birds track that smell to the source. Tests have shown that they always arrive on the upwind side of corpus delicti and that’s how experts know that smell is dominant.

Yes, the process is gross to us, but if you consider the scientific name for the turkey vulture – Cathartes Aura – they sound noble.  It means cleansing breeze. They swoop in on the wind and clean the earth. And they are disinfectors too, consuming anthrax and cholera bacteria and safely removing it. In this sense they are hazmat teams. But my admiration of these magnificent creatures is fully realized watching them in flight. I can sit in my backyard and watch hundreds of them ride high up in the sky like an avian tornado. They’re having fun up there. They’re not all about carrion, I’m convinced. They’re windsurfers fully elated by this vulture sport they collectively love. The winds do not conquer them. They ride them high into the vaulted blue, cloudless skies. Some, pilots tell us, go as high as 20,000 feet and they rarely have to flap their wings. They just soar and glide, at one with the wind.

You can find them all across Texas, along with their slightly smaller cousins, the black vultures, which prefer the eastern part of the state. Together they are our cleaners, our sanitizers, the avian, last line of defense for our most famous slogan:  “Don’t mess with Texas.”

Texas Standard: July 4, 2019

There’s a long list of Democratic Presidential candidates. Two from Texas, but only one Texan is now among the top 5 candidates. We’ll have the story. Also, in this, the land of the free, how one man found true freedom even as he is behind bars. Plus how can camp create positive memories for children who are homeless? U.T. Dallas may have found a way, we’ll explore. And linguistics and Baseball. Excuse me, what? Don’t worry, we have a Texan Translation for you! And, scoot closer to the radio because we are about to talk scooters: the good, the bad and the ugly. That and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: May 15, 2019

A potential challenge to Rowe vs. Wade by Alabama lawmakers as a federal appeals court hears a Texas case that could sharply curb abortion access, we’ll have the latest. Also thousands of fish, crabs and other sea life wash up dead along Galveston bay. Oystering there is closed until further notice. A clampdown on seafood safety on the Texas gulf after a chemical spill, we’ll have details. And the return of the so-called education degree in Texas. Plus, has Texas removed more Confederate monuments than any other state? A politifact check and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: April 4, 2019

Texas house lawmakers give the green light to a 9 billion dollar school funding bill plus a teacher pay raise. But what happens next will be critical. Also, after a slap on the wrist from the nation’s high court, a major change coming to Texas’ execution chamber. We’ll have the what and why. Also, the pay gap for women in tech. And what could be rare bipartisan action in congress, this time to deal with what some call a retirement savings crisis. Plus your weekend trip tip and a whole lot more today on the Texas Standard:

Grocery Store Grackles

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Scooters

Dockless scooters: like ’em or hate ’em, they’re everywhere these days, and are likely here to stay because tech companies refuse to stop “disrupting” the way we get around. While they can be fun for a quick whirl around town, they also go faster than some expect when they first hop on, which has led to many an accident. They’ve become such a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even announced the launch of a special study in Austin to evaluate the health risks of these two-wheeled menaces. That was the inspiration for this Typewriter Rodeo poem.

Grackles Be Stealin’

Those loud, black birds are infamous across Texas — and they were the inspiration for this Typewriter Rodeo poem.

Texas Standard: December 27, 2017

Trips to Israel by Texas officials are costing taxpayers. Is it worth it? We’ll explore. Also we’ll take a look at the longstanding economic ties between Texas, and oil! Plus while all eyes have been on the North Pole the last few days we turn our attention to the South Pole. We’ll hear from a couple who spent time there for research on a future journey to Mars. And if you’ve got a poinsettia in the house, check the leaves. We’ll tell you why. And we’ll look to commentator WF Strong for some predictions for Texas not in 2018… but in 2118. Those stories and a whole lot more today on the Texas Standard:

Ode to Buzzards

Seeing a circling buzzard near the roadway is usually a pretty good indication that something has died nearby. It’s also likely the scavenging bird will take care of what’s left of that roadkill critter. That was the inspiration for this Typewriter Rodeo poem.

Texas Standard: December 30, 2016

The number of U-S police officers who died in the line of duty at a five-year high. Texas by far lost the most. How that’s affecting those still serving. Also, a price surge, long lines and shortages: the gas crisis going on just south of the border. And extending our quality of life with the help of robots. How artificial intelligence can help the aging. And a look back at Texas’s role in the civil rights movement and what community organizers can learn from it. Plus, sweet or unsweet? It’s a question Texans are used to, we’ll explore the history. And how an NBA rookie broke barriers with the Houston Rockets this week. Those stories and a whole lot more on today’s Texas Standard:

June 5, 2015

Egg prices are skyrocketing because of bird flu…….some grocery stores even limiting how many you can buy at once. Legislative elections in Mexico on Sunday…and some Texans are watching to see if they boost the power of the Mexican president. Plus- mixed news on Texas manufacturing, the week in Texas politics, and Neil deGrasse Tyson takes on Hollywood’s astronomical errors. All that and more coming up on the national news show of Texas.