September 28, 2009

Carrion call

Carrion eaters is not a subject that flies across the radar screen of most people's daily lives, but on a recent day I encountered the subject of giant, flesh-eating birds not once, not twice, but three times (one of those times in the flesh).

In the morning Dana handed me her college application essay, the piece of work that will, if done well, convey to admissions officers something true and real about her that other components of her application may not.

Her essay is about our trip to Uganda and its effect on her life. It's beautiful, and I love it more with each reading. Near the beginning she makes a reference to the big birds that lurk in and circle over Kampala:

"There were differences between their world and mine: four-foot-tall marabou storks don’t rest on my neighbors’ satellite dishes, ubiquitous signs warning about the prevalence of AIDS don’t mark my Boston streets, whole families don’t navigate the city on a single, chugging motor scooter, and women don’t sit by the side of the road selling bananas and spreading sorghum out to dry..."

A few hours after Dana's essay had plucked Uganda memories from the back of my mind and put them up front, I sat down with a book, the 2002 edition of The Best American Travel Writing. I'd picked up the anthology the week before at a used book sale and was half-way through. The next story on tap was Edward Hoagland's "Visiting Norah," originally published in Worth magazine. I almost dropped the book when I read the first sentence:

"Two pairs of marabou storks, each of them five feet tall and battleship gray with a pink neck and a wattle pouch, proudly posing and croaking, were raising chicks in bulky nests in the flame trees that overlooked the swimming pool at the Fairway Hotel in Kampala, Uganda."

Where Dana's marabou storks stay benignly in their satellite dishes, Hoagland's fowl are ready to swoop down and feed:

"... marabou storks... are carrion feeders and offal scavengers, similar to but larger than the most no-nonsense vulture, and in famine territory they of course will eat children who drop by the wayside. In the chaos of modern Africa, they have moved from the veldt and forests into the cities, wherever garbage and death and anarchy erupt. They are tolerated because, as they stalk around, gobbling refuse, rodents, fruit rinds, rotting vomit, dog carcasses... with their thick, scary beaks, they fend off disease. But when I saw them roosting in the downtown parks... as if watching for any homeless person who might be staggering or bleeding, they looked like undertakers to me."

They are hideous and huge, and they are everywhere in Kampala. It took me and Dana about a day to get used to their wheeling, squawking, hulking forms as just another routine piece of the urban puzzle.

So, it's lunchtime in my little Boston 'burb, and I've had two carrion encounters. Odd.

After lunch I go off for a slow run. A mile from my house, above the well-trafficked, densely-built route I've been running for 15 years, a giant bird circles above my head and lands on an antique Cape's peaked roof. His wingspan stretches at least three feet. I stop in my tracks and stare. What is that bird? An eagle? He opens his wings, stares directly at me, and keeps his awesome wings open, as if to dry them in the sun that's beating on the black-shingled roof. A second bird flies up a side street, rounds the corner onto the street I stand on, and joins his friend on the roof. Their great wings are outstretched. I am transfixed.

They are magnificent -- from the neck down. No, these are not eagles. These have hideous heads.

A man and his son ride toward me on bikes. "We saw you, and wanted to see what you were looking at," said the dad. I asked if he knew what kind of birds these are -- some type of giant hawk, perhaps?

"Turkey vultures. They're around here, but they don't usually come out into the open like this. They're usually in the fields."

Vultures. "There must be dead meat around," I said, and a second later we spied half of a dead, bloody fox lying near the side of the road.

I continued my run, again with thoughts of Africa in my head, Kenya this time, where, on dawn game drives in the Masai Mara we'd watch scavengers -- jackals and hyenas -- fight over the remains of kills that the lions had brought down and feasted on through the night. Predators kill at night; scavengers feed in the morning. The sated, fat-bellied simbas were asleep in the grasses, leaving wildebeest haunches and zebra heads for the dawn patrol, animals lower on the food chain. Hyenas ruled the carcass-cleaning chaos, and they chased and swatted the jackals who darted fast and low into the feeding frenzy to tear off small chunks of flesh and spirit them away.

The vultures were too smart, too patient or too lazy to fight for their food. They simply waited on the sidelines for the others to finish, then swooped or waddled over to the carcass so many animals had already dined on, spread their wings over it, then hunched down to pick every crevice clean.