The first exposure I ever had to vultures was likely cartoons, where the image of huge, circling birds represented an omen of death to whatever character was roaming the desert, along with cacti and tumbleweeds. Their huge shadows loomed as they flew overhead, usually with only the occasional flap of the wings, like an ornithological grim reaper. While it likely didn’t register for me at the time, the birds carried the threat of the sequence of events between when a character collapses from thirst and when they are reduced to a comical skeleton. Its not surprising that there in no on-screen depiction of Bugs Bunny getting his eyeball plucked out.
The second, more memorable exposure came in the form of a small display in the LA Zoo that I saw as a child that I remember being fascinated by. It was a small display detailing the LA Zoo’s involvement in the California Condor Recovery program. What captured me most was the image of a baby condor being fed by a puppet crafted out of leather to resemble the bald head of an adult condor.
At the beginning of the program, there were less than 30 individual California condors left, and they were all rounded up and brought to the LA or San Diego zoo as part of a last ditch effort to save the species. Condors are the largest land bird in north America and can live to up to 80 years old, but that comes with the drawback of not being precocious or prolific breeders. They won’t start reproducing until age five or six, and even then, they only produce one egg at a time and raise that chick for two years, resulting in a chick every other year at the most. However, if the couple loses the egg for any reason, they will lay another that same season, and if that egg is lost, they will try again the following year. By removing the eggs from the nest and rearing the chicks away from the parents, the number of chicks that can hatch in a year goes from one chick every other year to two chicks every year. There has been a lot of interesting discussion around the implications and practicalities of raising condors like this so they can be returned to the wild, especially since the first generation of puppet chicks where fascinated by rock climbers and once broke into someones home.
The years went by and the condors lived in my head a long with all the other birds I have been known to fixate on (last semester I wrote an ethnography on pigeons) but I didn’t think much on carrion birds specifically; in fact, I have never seen one in the flesh. But in 2020 two things happened: I read The Land of Open Graves by Jason De Leon, and a condor chick hatched at the LA Zoo.
The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail is an excellent ethnography by Jason De Leon describing his experience doing ethnographic research on migrant crossings through the Sonoran desert. He refers to the desert as a hybrid collectif, which includes all the biotic and abiotic hazards that contribute to the deaths of the people swallowed by the desert. US immigration uses the desert to their advantage by making it one of the only viable places for people to cross the border, and then waiting for those people to die. Vultures are key to the final stage of the process of “deterrence,” as those who die in the desert are picked apart by animals and their bodies are never found, or never identified. De Leon refers to this as necroviolence, or violence against a dead body to further harm the people around the victim. In Land of Open Graves, De Leon describes experiments using pigs to approximate what happens when a body is left in the desert. After a period of decomposition, the body is descended on by tens of vultures at a time, consisting of turkey vultures and black vultures vying for a spot on the corpse, “a grotesque crescendo.” The birds scatter bones, clothes, and anything on the body more that 50 meters away from their original location, and completely skeletonize the body in a matter of days, making the window between death and complete disappearance less than a month.
As I was reading this book, I was also closely following the saga of a condor egg at the LA Zoo, dubbed LA1720, and with its very own hashtag. It was not the only condor egg scheduled to hatch, but there had been complications with this egg, as the chick was malpoistioned for hatching. As previously mentioned, condors are infrequent breeders, and the condor team at LA Zoo have since moved away from puppets to having the parents of the chick rear it, meaning the old trick of swiping the eggs no longer works and there are fewer eggs being laid in general, in the name of proper chick raising. In addition, LA1720 also had apparently important genes, and since all surviving California condors are descendants of a couple individuals, the preservation of any genetic diversity is paramount.
A group of dedicated professionals known as the condor team pulled out all the stops in making sure the chick hatched. You could even say that they hatched the chick by delicately piercing the shell to allow the chick to breathe, dripping antibiotics into the shell membrane, and then assisting the chick out with gloved hands, revealing a little alien.
Over the next 36 hours, the chick was monitored closely, had ointments applied, feathers fluffed, and was hand fed carrion out of a measuring cup. The eggshell had been saved for what was coming next.
It was finally time to get the parents involved, and as the chick was deemed healthy, it was returned to the nestbox with absolute stealth.
The 7th slide of the post is a video of Mike of the condor team deftly placing LA1720 back in its original shell, making sure its little wings and head where tucked inside, and then loosely closing the shell up with tape, so that the chick could “hatch” in the presence of its parents. I was obsessed with this. There was something about this man in cargo shorts, who looked like he could’ve been one of my stepdad’s surfing buddies, casually putting a chick back in its egg like hes done it a million times before that brought back that same feeling I had looking at that condor puppet. All the lengths that people went to keep this animal from extinction, the intersection between zoological expertise and love was absurd and delightful.
And so there I was, watching this condor chick with absolute adoration while simultaneously reading descriptions of vultures ripping out the entrails of pigs that were stand-ins for humans. While the responsible creatures aren’t the same species, they are all carrion birds, and to most, a vulture is a vulture. Upon further examination, any bird described as a vulture is laden with contradictions. They are considered dirty while being the bird that cleans the world. They are thought evil though they never kill. They are majestic and otherworldly, yet highly impacted by humans and on the verge of extinction. They’re associated with capitalists but they are the ultimate anarchist freegans out there. So what gives? Who is the Vulture?