Rio Grande Valley

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: December 21, 2020

We have a winner in a hotly contested state senate election. Can it tell us anything about the Texas Republican party? We’ll explore. Also, some health care providers across Texas have now received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Next up should be nursing home patients and staff. We’ll look at how one provider is feeling about it all. And UT-Austin is changing the way it determines who gets into a certain program. How an algorithm can show bias. Also Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit too overturn some election results was a failure, on all but one front. We’ll explain. Those stories and so much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: November 26, 2020

It’s Thanksgiving Day and we’re re-broadcasting a special show for you. Overlooked No More: How Asian Texans shape the state. Today we’ll talk about How the Asian American community has changed since 1870, the first time the U.S. census counted people from China to today. Also, we’ll meet a group called the “Pershing Chinese” – a story of Chinese immigration through Mexico. Then we’ll travel to the border where a vibrant Filipino community settled. And is it time to re-evaluate the holidays we officially recognize in Texas? All of those stories and more on today’s special edition of the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: November 3, 2020

It’s the final countdown to what some fear may not be a final countdown tonight. As Texans go to the polls, we’ll tell you the latest and what to watch for. With a presidential race that appears to be more competitive in Texas than it has been for decades, and 8 million voters having already cast a ballot in Texas, and more in line as we speak, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post and Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune join us live to talk about the issues on this election day. Also a closer look at how the vote counting process will play out across the Lone Star State, professor Steven Vladeck with the legal issues at play and much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: August 5, 2020

After first asking for an extension to complete the census count, a sudden u-turn. The impact on Texas could last for a decade or more, we’ll have details. Also, more women are unemployed now than at any time since the late 1940’s, and women of color are among the hardest hit. What some are calling America’s first female recession, and what’s behind it. And residents along the gulf coast finding more effective ways to deal with an active hurricane season amid a pandemic. Plus a claim that 1 in 3 texans can’t access health insurance. A Politifact check and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: July 29, 2020

To apply or not to apply? Is DACA on or is it off? Wait, didn’t the Supreme Court say it was on? We’ll have the answers. And speaking about the Supreme Court, a refresher on voting by mail. Also the story of two survivors of the Walmart killings in El Paso and their reunion almost a year to the day. And did you hear commissioners in Harris County are thinking about suing the state of Texas? Plus did you know the census and healthcare outcomes could be interconnected? All of that and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: July 28, 2020

COVID-19 cases are plateauing in the Lone Star State. But that’s not the end of the story, we’ll have the latest. Also, how Texas A&M is strategically positioned to mass produce a COVID-19 vaccine. And how racism also occurs within communities of color. Plus Disaster declarations after Hanna and what the governor is doing to restore the Valley. And neighbors trying to remain neighborly. How the U.S. and Mexico share the waters of the Rio Grande River. Those stories and much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: July 27, 2020

A weakened hurricane is still a monster and despite it being the weekend, Hanna hit Texas hard. We’ll have details. Also, on a different kind of storm, this one in the Republican Party. Why are some county republican parties censuring the governor? Plus, you’re about to hear one of the strangest stories in San Antonio’s recent history. And speaking of strange, why were asylum seeking children recently being held in a hotel? Those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: July 16, 2020

A New York Times reporter covering the impact of COVID-19 returns to the Rio Grande Valley and finds himself part of the story. We’ll have a conversation about his experience. Also, new record numbers of COVID-19 cases reported in Texas. And how should teachers prepare for their own safety if they have to return to campus in the fall? Dr.Fred Campbell of UT Health San Antonio takes up that and more listener questions about COIVD-19. Also how facilities dedicated to health care for Veterans are coping. And challenges faced by contact tracers in Lubbock. Those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: July 7, 2020

10 out of 12 hospitals reach capacity in the Rio Grande Valley, and the top health official in Hidalgo county tests positive for COVID-19. We’ll have more on the effects of the pandemic and the strain on health care resources in Texas. Also, a new survey on conflicting attitudes about the Coronavirus in Texas and the role of politics in opinion. Plus, on the eve of the first face to face meeting between the president of the US and the president of Mexico, a look at how the crisis is playing out south of the border. Those stories and so much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: March 4, 2020

Joe Biden may have won the popular vote in Texas, but it wasn’t a bust for Bernie Sanders. What are the top Takeaways from Super Tuesday in the Lone Star State? Texans Matthew Dowd of ABC news, Karen Tumulty of the Washington post and Victoria de Francisco Soto of the LBJ school among the experts helping us decode the many messages from the ballot box. Plus Bloomberg’s big bet on Texas goes bust, debunking some dubious coronavirus claims and much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: November 22, 2019

The public part of the House impeachment inquiry is over. Did it have an impact? A former White House adviser says yes, in ways that may not be obvious, we’ll explore. Plus: 2020. It’s closer than you think, especially if you’re in the business of running an election. How much more secure are systems now, with less than a year to go before presidential balloting? Also, over objections of native americans, environmentalists and others, three new natural gas export facilities get the green light…What will it mean for texas and the economy? All of that and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: October 21, 2019

House speaker Dennis Bonnen could be leaving sooner than anyone expected, so says Texas tribune co-founder Ross Ramsey. We’ll have details. Other stories we’re following: a backlog at a major DPS crime lab. The problem: worker turnover. Also, money going up in smoke? What to do about a surplus of natural gas. And is Texas more southern or western? Scholar H.W. Brands invites readers to rethink what they know of the latter, in his epic history of the American west. Those stories and so much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: April 9, 2019

Texas officials raising lots of eyebrows after taking quick action to sue the companies involved in recent chemical disasters. A change of heart? We’ll take a look. Also, who’s helping the growing numbers of people crossing the border right now? Highly strained resources for migrants in the valley as their numbers mount. And is the STAAR test aimed too high for Texas students? New complaints getting a hearing at the state capitol. Plus a closer look at the possibility of a former Texas governor taking over as head of Homeland Security. All of those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: April 3, 2019

Just two weeks after the petrochemical disaster in Deer Park, another chemical fire at a plant outside of Houston: this one deadly. We’ll have the latest. Plus: 9 dead, 20 injured, nearly 200 arrested and 4 years later, all cases dismissed yesterday without a single conviction. What happened after the Waco biker shootout? And what are the lessons? Plus, a warning about a quarter of Texas’ dams, we’ll take a look. And they call it the Rio Grande Valley, but where are the mountains? Our commentator W.F. Strong on an etymological mystery and a whole lot more today on the Texas Standard:

What’s In A Name – The Rio Grande Valley

When some people first arrive in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas they often ask, “Where are the mountains?” It’s natural. Generally a valley is between mountains or at least hills. But the Rio Grande Valley is most accurately a delta region, as level as Lubbock. The highest roadway point is the 80-foot summit of the causeway bridge that goes to South Padre Island.

So how did a delta become the Valley? Marketing. Back in the early 1900s when developers were selling beautiful orchard acreage to northerners in New York and Chicago, they found that naming the area the Rio Grande Valley was a powerful selling strategy. It was also marketed as “the Magic Valley” – and I have no problem with the magic part. After all, there are dozens of varieties of exotic birds and butterflies that migrate through here each year. Some species winter here, too.  The vibrantly colored birds and butterflies do make it a magical. And there are the crops, too. Early on, visitors saw that sugar cane and cotton and citrus orchards, irrigated with plentiful Rio Grande water, grew like magic in the Magic Valley.

The strategy worked. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the RGV from northern states last century for the subtropical climate and relaxed living. Some came just for the mild winters they were called “Winter Texans” (and still are). “Winter Texan” was another successful PR term that seemed much more warm and personable than the slightly pejorative, “Snowbird.” From the point of view of a Texan, there could be no greater compliment than to crown visitors a “Texan” for the time they are here.

The Rio Grande Valley is comprised of many small and medium-sized cities.  Many have interesting name origins. South Padre Island translates to “Father Island.” It was named for a catholic priest – Padre José Nicolás Ballí. He inherited the island from his grandfather who received it as a land grant from King Charles III of Spain in 1759.

Brownsville could have been called Texasville if the original fort built there had kept its first name, which was Fort Texas. The makeshift fort was quickly constructed in 1846 to lay claim to the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas.  The Mexican army bombarded the fort and Major Jacob Brown, originally of Boston, was killed. He was the first casualty of the Mexican-American war. So the fort was renamed Fort Brown in his honor and the town that grew up around the fort was named Brownsville.

Harlingen was named for the town of Harlingen in the Netherlands. Its founder, Lon C. Hill, thought the town’s river, the Arroyo Colorado, could be a commercial waterway to the sea, and Harlingen a city of canals, similar to its namesake in Holland. It’s pronounced differently. The Harlingen in Holland has a different “g” – Harlingen.

Weslaco is almost an acronym. It was founded by W.E. Stewart, owner of the W.E. Stewart Land Company, which was a real estate development company. So you take Stewart’s initials and the first letters of “land” and “company” and you get “Weslaco.”

Edinburg was named for Edinburgh, Scotland. Well, technically named in honor of John Young, a businessman from Edinburgh, Scotland. Both are university towns, but are spelled differently and pronounced differently, too. The Edinburgh in Scotland has somewhat of a silent g and h at the end. The one in Texas has no ‘h” but does pronounce the “g.” Edinburg. Don’t know the reason for spelling and saying it differently, but this is Texas – it’s what we do. We take the names and make them our own.

Texas Standard: November 1, 2018

Along a major bridge in south Texas, welders putting barriers in place. We’ll get a first hand look at steps being taken in an apparent effort to shut down the border. We’ll be talking with a reporter from the McAllen monitor about unprecedented work on a bridge spanning the Rio Grande and what it could mean in practical terms. Also, the FDA green lights what could be a life saving new flu drug even though the researcher behind it says it could have happened long ago. Why the wait? Think: money. And a deal by IBM turns the nation’s attention to Texas farms, and not the kind that grow crops either. All that and then some today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: September 13, 2018

Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas. But closer to home, officials in south Texas claim after flooding there they got stiffed by FEMA, we’ll have the latest. Also, we thought there are big discrepancies in health care for minorities, but now the agency examining those inequities nixed. We’ll hear why and what it means. And a year after a major quake in Mexico city killing more than 300: a new report blames corruption for many of the buildings that toppled. We’ll have details of the investigation. Plus tighten those crash helmets: Texas cities on a collision course with electric scooters. Those stories and a whole lot more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: September 11, 2018

Public frustration boils over into the streets after manslaughter charges in the fatal shooting of an innocent man by a Dallas police officer. We’ll have the latest. Also, after 2016, do you trust political polls? With election day now just 8 weeks away, the horserace begins in earnest. We’ll explore how the polls became such a major institution in American politics. And a historic moment for the Boy Scouts as they start recruiting Texas girls. Why they’re doing this and how it’s going so far. Plus the race to save the Texas horny toad and so much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: August 21, 2018

Hubbub in Hub City: after the chancellor of Texas Tech resigns, questions grow along the lines of “was he pushed” and why. We’ll talk “regent-gate”. Also, working and getting ripped off at the same time: after Harvey a wave of workers come forward saying their wages were stolen. We’ll hear what’s being done to help and what isn’t. And condition critical for rural hospitals in Texas closing or on the verge of doing so at an alarming rate. We’ll have details. Also trial in Dallas for a police officer charged in the shooting death of an african american teen: what the case might say about justice in similar incidents. And a lesson from a hurricane on how to save a species. All that and more today on the Texas Standard: