Saturday, November 10, 2012

Not for the Faint of Heart: Part I

 Note:  Time just flies by!  This event happened about six weeks ago, just before our first trip to the Klamath Basin.  I decided to keep those posts together and now it is time to type up my notes from Sept. 22 and 23, 2012.  If you’d rather not hear about turkey vultures and dead things, just skip the next two posts.  I find vultures fascinating ... and very good at their job of helping to clean up unfortunate accidents.  What happened in my own backyard was a rare opportunity for me.

Sept. 23, 2012:  An hour ago I was delighted to finally see the doe and fawns that I know have been visiting our backyard.  Mostly I just see their big poop and little poop.  About ten days ago our house guest, Jack Gilchrist, saw the doe and two fawns in the yard at first light.  Each morning since I look for them, but never see them ... until now.  
About 5 PM I spot the doe, a black-tailed deer, and one fawn checking to see if they can reach any apples.  They’ve already eaten the easy ones.  Then the two walk over to the blackberries and spook three white cabbage butterflies .... so pretty!  It takes me awhile to find the second fawn. I sense something is wrong.  It lies under my concord grapes, its sides heaving.  I even make a light remark to Dale she must be having a bad dream about being chased.  

Back to my cooking for a moment and then I look again.  A turkey vulture has landed in a nearby tree and the fawn lies still!    I doubt five minutes has elapsed.  That vulture must have known the fawn was dying!

The doe approaches her still fawn, but only to within about ten feet.  The vulture flies off.  I’m not sure if the doe spooked the vulture, or if I did.  I think the vulture spotted me looking out the window.  The doe leaves.

Half an hour later the vulture lands on the low bough again ... and fifteen minutes after that it drops to the ground and approaches the fawn.  I catch a glimpse of the other fawn peering around by blackberry clump.  The doe must be back there too.
Soon a second vultures arrives and both start pulling and tugging on vulnerable parts of the carcass.  Darkness comes soon.  One vulture stays until it is almost too dark to watch.

Day 2:  
7:20 AM:  First vulture arrives.  It barely has time to get serious about eating, when Lucy, the neighbor’s black lab, arrives.  Darn!  I don’t know why the fawn died  Lucy shouldn’t be there.  I quickly shoo her home and telephone her owner.  They’ll keep her home.  

Next I telephone the Public Works Department to see if the city will remove the fawn.  They have two suggestions: Either have a neighbor with a pickup take the fawn to the dump or drag it to the street and they’ll pick it up sometime next week.  The dump won’t be open for three days and I really don’t think to dumping it in the street is a solution.  I live in a residential area.  

I ponder on the problem.  Years ago Dale and I would  have just thrown a tarp in the van and hauled the fawn off to some isolated spot ... but right now neither of us are up to lifting it.  Even the vultures are gone since Lucy spooked them an hour ago.  .... No they aren’t!  I step outside to take a look and spook several vultures out of our trees.  

9:50 AM  I look out my kitchen window again.  Nine turkey vultures, no 10,  no 11...12.  One is on the shed, two on the fence, I can hear one shift his feet on the deck roof above me, one flies past, but most are on the ground next to the fawn.  Maybe we won’t have to worry about having someone come to remove the fawn.  The vultures are going to do it for us.  
I have to admit it is fascinating watching ... but not for the faint of heart.  Last night the birds had worked on every orifice and broke open a little skin on its belly.  Now significant progress has been made opening the carcass.  It is easy to see why turkey vultures have naked heads.  One reaches right into the body cavity, pulls and tugs.  Another waits for an opportunity.  Two more are working on the head.  

Suddenly I get a bright idea.  I’m in my dining room, peering at the vultures through my deck railing ... wishing I could get a clean shot at the birds to photograph them.  I crack open my sliding door open, wide enough for my camera lens.  Darn!  Just doing that flushes all the birds.  But I bet they’ll come back.


  1. I remember you telling me about this. It was the same day I saw a doe dead, hit by a car, by the side of the main street not far from you. Sad to see and I know I couldn't watch, but you did a great job recording it with the sketches.

  2. At least the poor fellow landed in a peaceful setting where one of nature's best artists can watch out her kitchen window to document the circle of life drama. Nothing you haven't witnessed in Yellowstone, and you understand the vultures' purpose.

  3. Wow...8-9 black giants flushed like a flock of sparrows...lots of swooshing wings. We had a vulture feast in Kruger Nat. Pk. in So.Africa...but were confined to viewing from car windows at ~100 yards. Nothing like your own backyard. Wonder why the fawn died...but no autopsy possible, post TV.

  4. Wow the vulture sketch is great - the group of vultures, their dynamics is very nicely captured.

    The one with the wings open to the right is a great sketch

  5. There was a story on NPR a few months ago about how the Zoroastrians in India rely on vultures to dispose of their dead. Vultures have nearly disappeared (starting around 2007), which is causing problems for their ritual. Here's a link to the story if you are interested:

    Came here from Sketching in Nature blog - looking forward to reading the rest of the story!

    1. The story on the Zoroastrians is fascinating. Thank you for sending the link.

  6. Thank goodness for vultures and the other creatures that are nature's garbage collectors! Their table manners and choice of entree may not be to our liking, but they are efficient at what they do.

    I had the privilege of working alongside a turkey vulture at a natural history museum Halloween event some years ago. I'd never been that close to a vulture before and I couldn't get over how intelligent it looked (clearly it was checking me out as much as I was checking it out), nor how beautiful it actually was.