by Gregory McNamee
The creatures that inhabit the deserts of the world—insects, birds, mammals, fish—are of special interest to a certain heat-tolerant breed of scientist, at least in part because of the adaptations that arid nature has forced on them, equipping them to survive in lands of no water and ferocious sun.
Those lands make up a good portion of the Earth, some twenty-five percent and growing. If you study a globe that marks the planet’s physical features, as you follow the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, thirty degrees on either side of the equator, you will see, distributed with suspicious regularity, a brown band of drylands. These lie in the so-called horse latitudes, where constant high-pressure systems separate the westerlies and trade winds, driving away the rain clouds, swirling above the earth to the music of global temperature variations and the Coriolis effect produced by the earth’s rotation in space. Some of those drylands, like the Atacama of Chile, the Namib and Kalahari deserts of southern Africa, and the western Australian desert, are the result of cold oceanic currents that divert rain-laden air away from coastlines. Others, like the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California, Arizona, and Mexico and the deserts of central and eastern Australia are caused by the “rainshadow effect,” through which coastal mountains milk rain from the air before it passes inland. Still others, like the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of Mongolia and China, are simply so far away from the ocean that the winds lose any moisture they may hold long before reaching the faroff continental interior, even what little moisture remains in the Indian Ocean—born clouds after they have scraped over the jagged Himalayas.
Harsh as they are, those deserts abound in life. And they abound in the stories that the people who live in them tell about that life; a library devoted to the folklore of desert animals would fill many large rooms. The small essays that follow, excerpted from my book A Desert Bestiary (Johnson Books, 1997), are full of true statements, outrageous and odd lies, and learned and not so learned guesses about why those animals live the way they do. With them, I hope to help construct a history of the drylands that talks at length, and with wonder, about the animals that share our world.
Thus the poet of Proverbs, who, like all desert people, turned to the ant for metaphorical example, finding in its industry the underpinnings of an ethic and a way of life.
Mark Twain, who spent time in the deserts of the American West, arrived at a good-natured rebuttal of the poet. “Science has recently discovered that the ant does not lay up anything for winter use,” he remarked, continuing,
Ants are common to most temperate and subtemperate biomes of the world, but they are among the desert’s defining creatures. What vegetation there is in a desert is partly thanks to the labors of the ants, whose endless digging helps loosen the hard soil and allow plant roots to find their way to water; ants seem to view the desert, at least the patch of it where I live, as a garden, constantly weeding the rocky ground. It is in recognition of their essential role, I think, that so many peoples of the deserts around the world have named themselves after ants: the Green Ant moieties of aboriginal Australia, the Ant warrior clans of the Berbers, and other groups honoring the anaxforminges, the archetypal lord of the ants. So, too, does the ant appear in Egyptian tombpaintings and Navajo sandpaintings, in the stories and songs of desert peoples everywhere, fooling, in Twain’s eyes, so many nations.
In the Berber creation story, collected by anthropologist Leo Frobenius, the ant is the first humans’ chief tutor.
The Akimel O’odham, who live along the middle Gila River of Arizona, sing songs about their homeland that, along the way, liken the people to ants, clinging to sticks as they descend into the earth.
In Arnhem Land, certain witches are thought to use a potion made of green ants and lizards to close incisions made in victims whose souls they have robbed. Green ants then bite any protruding organs until they retreat into the body, after which the victim is bashed on the head and told to forget what has happened to him. This would, I think, tend to prejudice a person against ants, but the inhabitants of Arnhem Land seem not to hold this sorcery against the insects.
The entomologist Justin O. Schmidt has concocted a rating scale for the bites of various venomous insects and reptiles. By that scale, the bite of a fire ant is akin to a mild shock of static electricity, that of the harvester ant somewhat more severe, as if someone were using a power drill to excavate a painfully ingrown toenail, and that of a bullet ant even more fierce, the equivalent of walking over coals with a heelful of iron nails. Even they do not add up to the punch of a rattlesnake, whose pain rating Schmidt ranks off the charts, akin to sending a scorching bullet into a sensitive limb.
For all their relative lack of firepower, fire ants are a great concern of American desert dwellers these days, and who knows what urban folklore, like that surrounding giant flying cockroaches and sewer alligators, the encroaching fire ants may one day inspire. These creatures first arrived from the South American tropics into the American drylands, having hitched a ride on banana freighters that landed in Mobile, Alabama, only sixty years ago. Their remarkably fast spread is an example of the adaptability of the ants, and other social insects, and cause for a scare, as the Associated Press reported on June 12, 1995:
It is hard to imagine that these fearful fire ants will find a champion such as Albert Schweitzer, who once told a young Sahelian boy he witnessed torturing an ant, as at the beginning of Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch, “That’s my private ant. You’re liable to break it.”
Ants inspire the sometimes totalitarian dreams of social engineers. The Zulu kings pointed to the example of the weaver ants (Oecophylla longinoda), whose tentlike colonies spread over dozens of baobab trees at a time and number half a million individuals governed by a single monarch, as models of social organization. So did the Zuni Indians, who call their crowded pueblo home in the high desert of western New Mexico the “middle anthill.” Yet those who see in social-insect societies like those of the ant a model for human societies, as some lesser advocates of sociobiology have suggested, should beware. As Arnold Toynbee writes, “insect societies and Utopias are both patently in a state of arrested development,” and we have little to learn from either if we are to live as humans in the world.
That lesson has not been taken in Arcosanti, an experimental community a hundred miles north of Phoenix, Arizona. A garish bit of construction perched on a high plateau, it resembles nothing so much as an anthill, one that mixes the architectural sensibilities of Antonio Gaudi and Albert Speer. Paolo Soleri, the Italian designer and self-styled visionary who has made Arcosanti his lifework, has articulated a weird view of the future that goes something like this: in the coming years, humankind will have despoiled the planet (a likely enough possibility) to the extent that we will all—or at least those of us who outlast the apocalypse—be forced to live in hermetically sealed towers, our allotment a cubicle apiece so small that it would make the denizens of San Quentin riot in a second. The vision is exactly that of a weaver anthill, and inspiration enough, I think, for us to do something about the various ecological messes we’ve made before we condemn ourselves to living in the empire of the ants.
The bat, nature’s great insecticide, has had a bad time of it for millennia. Aesop tells this story about the perhaps too-versatile creature, which humans have always had trouble classifying into the neat categories of bird and beast, flying and terrestrial creature:
Likewise, the Chemehuevi Indians of the Mojave Desert tell this story about the bat’s failure to fall neatly in step with others’ well-laid plans:
The aboriginal peoples of the Kimberley Range, who seem more kindly disposed toward the winged mouse, tell stories of a creator bat who was present at the dawn of the world—one of the few instances in which bat helps shape the planet, as it happens—and of Wariwulu, Batman, who is a protector of the people. In the Gadimargara dreaming, the world is surrounded by bats; when they sleep in their great cave, it is daytime, but when they are out flying they cover the sun, and then it is night.
The bats’ play in shaping the world is now in danger. The population of the Mexican freetail bat, to name one prominent North American desert-dwelling species, is in precipitous decline. In some areas, the population has fallen by 99.99 percent in just thirty years; where Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, once housed some 8 million, only 250,000 are left, and in the tall caves over Arizona’s San Francisco River where as many as 25 million bats once lived, the population is now perhaps 35,000. The thirty-nine other bat species in North America are in increasing peril as well, much of it traceable to the use of agricultural pesticides. With that fall has come a sharp rise in the mosquito population—a Mexican freetail bat can eat upwards of six hundred mosquitoes an hour—and with that mosquito upsurge, in turn, has come an increasing prevalence of tropical diseases in the desert, diseases once thought to have been eradicated, among them dengue fever, which has been striking the inland deserts of Mexico since the early 1990s. With the loss of those bats, too, tequila drinkers will have to look for another libation; bats are the chief pollinators of the agaves from which tequila is distilled. Their loss means the end of an ages-old symbiosis.
During World War II scientists working for the U.S. Army Air Corps attempted to develop a bomb that would release hundreds of incendiary charge–laden Mexican freetail bats over the major cities of Japan. These bats would, the scientists hoped, take refuge in rafters and rooftops and thus set off a huge firestorm when delayed fuses set off the charges. Evidently this bomb was not to have been used on our European enemies, against whom we battled more humanely, and in any event the experiment was short-lived; the bats instead burned down the New Mexico laboratory in which they were being tested.
A Chiricahua Apache elder once told the anthropologist Morris Opler, “If a bat bites you, you had better never ride a horse any more. All the Chiricahuas say that. If you do ride a horse after being bitten, you are just as good as dead.” Bats, bombers, and bridles, it would appear, are mixes that just don’t work.
Folklore lives by flourishes of the commonplace. Diane Ackerman adds to that of the bat wonderfully by her remark, in The Moon by Whale Light, that “their guano smells like stale Wheat Thins.”
The camel, as the old bon mot has it, is a horse designed by committee: an ungainly creature, it is the largest of the ruminants, the creatures that, alone of all mammals, arise from the ground hind legs first. If you have ever been spat on by one you know what it is like to have been visited by demons. Its foul spittle, however, is probably not why the camel is considered unclean by the strictures of Leviticus, but instead because it was the steed of the Bedouin enemy, and thus an enemy to city people and cultivators.
The camel is one of the earliest mammals to have been domesticated—even today, humans have tamed only a few of the mammal species offering themselves to the task—and one of the few to have been domesticated first by nonagricultural desert societies. We associate the camel with the North African desert, but it is a fairly recent importation there from the deserts of Persia, brought into the Sahara as a beast of burden in Roman times at about the time the last native elephants died off, the Romans having killed them off to supply ivory to the empire.
Now, deserts are windy places, windy because they abound in solar energy, the driving force of the world’s supply of moving air. One wind, the simoun (from the Arabic word for poison), shrieks over the Sahara, whipping up sand and dust into fearful, sharp-grained chevaux de frise. Herodotus, the great Greek traveler and historian, whom his younger contemporary Thucydides uncharitably called “the father of lies,” doubtless got it right when he reported the story of a Libyan army that marched off two and a half millennia ago into the deep Sahara to find and subdue the lord of these storms. The expedition never returned, “disappearing, in battle array, with drums and cymbals beating, into a red cloud of swirling sand.” The Assyrians, it is said, did much the same, sending squads of archers to combat the approaching clouds. And for good reason: a duststorm once buried Ur of the Chaldees, cause enough to seek vengeance.
The simoun has many local equivalents: the Moroccan sirocco, the Libyan ghibli, the Saudi khamsin, the Egyptian zoboa, the Australian “brickfielder,” the Mongolian karaburan, the Sudanese haboob, the Mauritanian harmattan, and the Indian loo, which Rudyard Kipling describes in his story “The Man Who Would Be King” as a “red-hot wind from the westward, booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending that the rain was on its heels.” The logic of those winds seems to have prompted evolution to make a few alterations in the master plan; recently, biologists have concluded that camels, strange creatures to begin with, evolved so that, standing, they can clear the sand-laden zone of air, which goes up only to about six feet, slightly lower than the average camel’s height. Other creatures, such as the antelope-like saiga of Central Asia and certain kinds of desert hares, have filtering tissues surrounding their respiratory tracts that give them the same adaptive advantage.
Nikolai Prejevalsky, the Russian scientist and explorer who crossed the high deserts of Central Asia atop a string of Bactrian camels, came to have a great respect for his steeds:
Aelian observes that the camels of the Caspii, the eponymous people of the Caspian Sea region, which Prejevalsky crossed, were innumerable, “and the largest are the size of the largest horses and have beautiful hair. . . . Accordingly their priests and the wealthiest and most powerful of the Caspii clothe themselves in garments made from the camels’ hair.” Herodotus rejoins that camels have four thighbones in their hind legs, and that their genitals face backwards. He was also shocked to report that while camels would never dream of copulating openly, their Massagetae drivers did, an affront to the camels’—and Herodotus’s—natural sense of decency.
Although it has long been popularly supposed that the camel’s back is curved, its backbone is as straight as that of a horse; its hump is composed of not bone but fat, and a malnourished or overworked camel will often not have a hump at all. The one-humped dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) of the Saharan and Arabian deserts and the two-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) differ largely in that the latter has shorter limb-bones than the former; the dromedary, too, has a vestigial anterior hump that seems to have shrunk from the Bactrian’s pronounced two humps in response to drier conditions. That reserve of fat enables the camel to store water and reabsorb it on long desert voyages when food and water are scarce, leading to the supposition that camels can travel for months at a time without taking a drink.
Adelard of Bath, an English theologian, spent several years in Syria and reported the things he had learned in his Quaestiones naturales, written in about 1117 but not published until 1480. Among the other learning he delivers to his foil, a young nephew, is a description of the camel and other ruminants. Adelard remarks, “It is a little difficult for you and me to argue about animals. I, with Reason for my guide, have learned one thing from my Arab teachers, you, something different; dazzled by the outward show of authority you wear a head-stall. For what else should we call authority but a head-stall?” When his nephew asks why some animals chew cud, Adelard replies,
Why camels should have cold natures we do not learn, but the ancients also supposed that the camel dislikes clear water, preferring to drink muddy, dirty water over any other. Modern science does not bear up this observation, although camels do tend to step in whatever body of water they happen to be drinking from, thus stirring up mud and silt from the bed. With clumsiness comes a reputation for obstinacy, as an Egyptian proverb tells: “The camel curses its parents when it has to go up a hill, and its Maker when it has to go down.”
Seeking elusive first causes, a medieval German philosopher-naturalist once supposed that the production of butter from churning cow’s milk came by way of suggestion from Arab traders to the West. These traders, he wrote, manufactured butter by heaving canteens full of camel milk across the saddle, and then ate the congealed contents at the end of a long desert passage.
Camels have been put to other uses in the kitchen as well. The Australian explorer Peter Egerton Warburton (1813–1889) crossed the continent with a string of camels, which began to die from eating poisonous plants or from the heat, whereupon Warburton and his human companions began to eat their unfortunate transport. “No shred was passed over,” Warburton recalled. “Head, feet, hide, tail, all went into the boiling pot. . . . The tough, thick hide was cut up and parboiled. The coarse hair was then scraped off with a knife and the leatherlike substance replaced in the pot and stewed until it became like the inside of a carpenter’s glue pot, both to the taste and to the smell.”
Every formally trained life scientist in the world is a master of a closed code, a private language: the Linnean binomial system of classification, whereby living things are assigned their place in the universe by the identification of genus and species. (Thus humans, genus Homo, species sapiens; thus wolves, genus Canis, species lupus.) The system is named for Carl von Linné (1707–1778), or Linnaeus, an odd man committed to not only the rigor of science and of exact classification but also the slipperiness of numerology, famed for his cranky mystical pronouncements just as much as he was for his undisputed advances in biology.
In his own time, Linneaus was challenged by other scientists who did not fully accept his insistence on rigid classification. One of his foremost opponents was Georges Louis Buffon (1707–1783), who favored a view of life that concentrated on the individual, then the species, as opposed to Linnaeus’s devotion first to the genus, then to the species; it was Buffon who insisted that species be defined in part as a “succession of individuals that can successfully reproduce with each other,” a benchmark that is still in general use today. Buffon also insisted on the study of the habits, temperaments, and instincts of animals rather than their gross morphological characteristics, an early holism that carries on in the present practice of natural history.
Neither Linnaeus nor Buffon knew the Americas. Buffon’s student and follower Corneille de Pauw, one of whose descendants endowed an American university, did. He did not like the place much. De Pauw wrote in his Recherches Philosophiques sur les Américains (1768) that the lands of the Americas were all deserts, swamps, or mountains, filled with poisonous fogs and death-dealing sun; in that country “monstrous insects grew to prodigious size and multiplied beyond imagining,” and the serpents and reptiles were horrendous beyond credulity. Thanks in part to his influence, many of those herps bear terrifying names—like that of the Gila monster, Heloderma suspectum, the “suspicious warty-skinned one.”
Ignaz Pfefferkorn (1725–1793) spent seven years in Sonora, a province of New Spain that included southern Arizona, as a Jesuit priest among the Eudeve, Opata, and Tohono O’odham peoples. The ruins of the church built for him by the last group may still be seen at Guevavi, near present-day Nogales. Expelled from New Spain with the Jesuit order in 1767, Pfefferkorn returned to his native Germany, where he wrote his book Beschreibung der Landschaft Sonora (A Description of the Province of Sonora). Pfefferkorn found the desert surpassingly strange, and especially the animals that populated it. One of the strangest was the Gila monster, the beaded, venomous lizard that unfortunately has many of the characteristics of the basilisk, that fantastic creature of the medieval Catholic bestiary “which frequents desert places and before people can get to the river it gives them hydrophobia and makes them mad. . . . It can kill with its noise and burn people up, as it were, before it decides to bite them.” The legend continued in later years; in The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser writes of the creature,
and in William Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, Posthumus says of the ring given to him as evidence that his wife has been unfaithful,
Now, Gila monsters are timid, small-jawed creatures, with unfatal eyes. A human has to work to get one to land a bite; still, countless of the reptiles ended up skewered on Spanish lances in an effort to purify the Crown’s holdings. (The lancers evidently did not share the belief, which Pliny records, that “once a basilisk was killed with a spear by a man on horseback, the venom passing up through the spear killed not only the rider but the horse as well.”) The same fate befell rattlesnakes, “the most villainous kind of beast”; mountain lions, whose “only enemy is the dragon”; tarantulas, wolves, and bears; and innumerable other creatures.
The Gila monster, a “living fossil” far better adapted to the Southwest’s temperate past than to its arid present, is still wantonly killed for sport or for its neurotoxic venom, or captured for commercial roadside zoos. An object of hatred since Spanish times, the unfortunate creature had developed a great body of folklore by the time Anglos came to the region. A traveling reporter overheard a drunken cowboy bragging of his exploits with the Gila monster: “I’ve seed a lizzard what could out-pizen any frog or toad in the world. . . . [My pistol] shot blew the body clean in two, and then I hope to die if the fore-legs didn’t get that pistol clean away from me, jump into the [Gila] river and swim away with it.” Responding to such stories, one Phoenix doctor remarked, “A man who is foolish enough to get bitten by a Gila monster ought to die.”
In Arizona, it is illegal for an individual to own a reticulated Gila monster, but not in California, where the reticulated variety is not resident. Arizona reptile collectors thus take reticulated Gila monsters across the state line, sell them, and then immediately buy them back, so that the creature comes with a California bill of sale. This king-hell mess is becoming a big business, and, as herpetologist Robert McCord observes, “The game laws are almost useless.”
The Arizona legislature has not helped much. One lawmaker, a self-described antienvironmentalist named Jeff Groscost, even proposed a bill in 1994 that would allow Gila monster farming. “The rumor right now is that wholesalers are paying up to $900 apiece for them,” Groscost argued. “If someone could breed them and raise them in captivity, then you could sell them and not take them out of the wild.” He also suggested that the lizards be injected with computer microchips to distinguish them from wild lizards.
Gila monsters being already as rare in the desert as rich people deserving of entry into heaven, any increase in their number should be thought a good thing—but not if the end is simply to fill a collector’s cage or a spotter’s life list.
Only 6 percent of the living beings on Earth are vertebrates, but they are the ones we, perhaps because we are also vertebrates, are most concerned with. The creatures from other orders, like the often overlooked desert millipedes, need to assert themselves mightily in order to draw attention to their mere existence. They did so two thousand years ago, when millipedes overran Rhoeteum, a town on the Troad in the high desert of southwestern Turkey, and drove its human inhabitants into the sea.
In the Sonoran Desert the millipede Orthoporus ornatus has only one enemy, the venomous larva of the Zarrhipis beetle. This larva is luminescent, and it makes for a strange sight indeed to see it wriggle after its slow-moving target in blackest night.
Strange to say, too, but millipedes are vulnerable to heatstroke.
According to what we can reconstruct of the ancient Hohokam creation legend, at the beginning of time Elder Brother, the creator god, made Rattlesnake with detachable teeth, so that human children could play with him freely. The children, however, made constant noise while they played, so that Elder Brother could not sleep. Finally he supplied Rattlesnake with permanent teeth, saying, “Now I have done this for you, and when anything comes near you, you must bite it and kill it. From now on people will be afraid of you. You will not have a friend and will always crawl modestly along.”
Charles Darwin observes that the rattlesnake, the only venomous snake that issues an audible warning before striking, would no more give warning to its intended target than a housecat would tell a mouse it was about to devour it. He remarks instead that the rattle acts something like the hood of a cobra or the raised hackles of a dog, as a signal to go away and leave its owner alone. Snakes being generally timid and nonaggressive creatures, his explanation makes good sense, but it is not widely shared, and even today in parts of the Southwest you will hear that a snake’s rattles—which are vigorously collected for the tourist market—will go on shaking until sunset once separated from the body. The rattler’s spinal column is indeed a durable creation, but it has no powers to sustain life without the heart and other organs.
If you are able without bad consequence to examine the underside of a rattlesnake, do so. There you will find a pair of hard protuberances lying flush to its scales. These are vestigial toenails, signs that rattlers are related to lizards and shed their feet somewhere along the evolutionary ladder.
But beware the bite, always. One bit of folklore that has basis in scientific fact is that the bite of a young rattler is more toxic than that of an older one. As is the case with so many animal species, the younger creatures lack self-control, and so their bites are full of venom. Older rattlers, it would appear, have a greater sense of what is appropriate, adjusting the venom to the task at hand.
In all this it is well worth remembering, however, that more people die of lightning strikes than snakebite every year. And it is thus strangely natural that desert peoples should long have equated snakes with lightning and water. The Wuturu hold that the carpet snake (Python variegatus) owns the water of the Australian desert, and the traditional O’odham believe that every water source has a serpent-god, a corúa, to watch over it. The O’odham water–snake connection is an ancient one, and its origins appear to be Mesoamerican: the Uto-Aztecan linguistic element co means snake, and it turns up in the name of the Aztec plumed serpent-god of the east, Quetzalcoatl. In O’odham belief these protector serpents were not aggressive, although they were endowed with huge fangs, and in any contact with humans the corúas usually lost. In the event of a serpent-god’s death, the O’odham held, its associated spring would dry up, and perhaps the idea of such a vulnerable if fearsome-looking snake kept the desert people from tampering with precious water sources. (The Mexican story of La Llorona, a weeping ghost who wanders along riverbeds and steals children who come too near, has a similar function.) Not all water serpents lived underground, however. Some dwelled in the hearts of the boiling summer thunderstorms that bring rain to the desert, not in life-replenishing droplets but in great black undulating curtains of water, leaving floods and destruction in their wake. It was no sin to kill such serpents, but even the most resourceful Tohono O’odham shaman was no match for the corúas of the air.
Here is a song sung by the Djambarbingu people of Arnhem Land:
In his treatise on animals, Aelian writes that in India and Libya the people believed that a snake who killed a human could no longer descend and creep into its own home, but had to live as an outcast, “a vagabond and wanderer, living in distress beneath the open sky throughout summer and winter.” This, Aelian understood, was the gods’ punishment for manslaughter, punishment that applied to humans and animals alike.
And from the deserts of India, too, came ancient reports of a serpent seventy cubits—that is, more than a hundred feet—long. This serpent once attacked Alexander the Great’s invading Macedonian army. Alexander did not succeed in slaying the serpent, although he is said to have come near enough to it to see that its eyes were as big as his shield.
Turkey vultures, the “indignant desert birds” of William Butler Yeats’s great poem “The Second Coming,” are to all appearances creatures of leisure. They prefer gliding on a bumpy desert thermal to flying under their own power; they’d rather hunker down to a found meal than hunt for themselves. The ones you’ll see perching atop Arizona’s power lines and cliff edges seem almost to be caricatures, emblems of easy living. But on this bright early-March dawn, the turkey vulture perched just across the slender Bill Williams River from me had taken leisure to unusually laid-back extremes. Far from flying off in alarm at my approach, as just about any other bird would, this specimen of Cathartes aura greeted me with the avian equivalent of a yawn.
The turkey vulture’s nonchalance made me wonder whether it had ever encountered humans before. There was good reason to suspect that it had not. The Bill Williams is easily Arizona’s remotest, least-visited river, lying far from paved roads anywhere but at its beginning in west-central Arizona and its end at the Colorado River between Parker and Lave Havasu City in the fast-growing Mojave Valley. Only a handful of people know the Bill Williams well, and to the flood of Arizona literature the river has contributed just a few drops. It took me nearly two decades’ worth of collecting Arizona’s wild places before I stumbled across it myself, finally filling in an uncharted quadrant of my personal map of exploration.
Humans, I suspected, were an equally rare find for its wild denizens, like the turkey vulture, to whom Henry David Thoreau adverted when he observed, “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Perhaps so. Petronius, the Roman poet, was not so cheered, remarking, “The vulture which explores our inmost nerves is not the bird of whom our dainty poets talk, but those evils of the soul, envy and excess.”
In Aztec myth, the turkey vulture shares a lineage with humans:
Without the vulture, many earthbound scavengers would not be able to locate food as quickly as they do. The quick vulture comes in to feed—incidentally, only the turkey vulture and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures are guided to carrion by smell—and hyenas, jackals, and coyotes follow to clean up afterward, the vulture having tipped them off.
In their book Innocent Killers Jane Goodall and Hugo van Lawick recount the wildebeest calving season, when hundreds of newborn wildebeests and their surrounding placentas dot the Serengeti plain. Vultures would first plummet from the sky to gather what they could, while the jackals and hyenas, just as soon as they could ascertain which direction the birds were flying in, “streaked across the open plain, often arriving only seconds after the vulture itself and getting most of the afterbirth.” The vultures seem not to mind, the authors note; they once witnessed a vulture fighting off a martial eagle that was dragging a young silverback jackal skyward to enjoy as a meal.
The O’odham peoples of southern Arizona and northern Mexico historically attributed the origin of diseases to the influence of different animals. To the vulture, unhappily, they assigned the sores that come from tertiary syphilis. Other animals fared no better in O’odham nosology: Gila monsters were held to cause fever, horned toads rheumatism, jackrabbits ulcers, rattlesnakes infections of the kidney and bladder, and butterflies all sorts of gastrointestinal discomforts.
Still, they also credited the vulture with shaping their landscape; the creator god charged Ñu:wi, the first Cathartes aura, to fly over the desert and shape the mountains and valleys with his wings, for the completion of which task he was honored with this song:
And apart from making the land just right, the vulture made the passage into the other world right as well in many ancient cultures. In Çatal Hüyük, Anatolia, more than eight thousand years ago, vultures disposed of the dead; they did so in several cultures in Africa and Tibet as well, although the tradition seems not to have been followed in the Americas. The Greek writer Pollux records that the Caspii, the people of what is now Turkmenistan, played funerary songs on the hollowed-out bones of vultures, and the funerary priests of ancient Egypt occasionally dressed in robes made of vulture feathers.
All that would not have impressed Charles Darwin, who wrote of the turkey vulture, “It is a disgusting bird, with its bald scarlet head formed to wallow in putridity.
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