One of my earliest bird-related memories is hanging out with a neighbor kid, lying on our backs on a picnic table, staring up at a blue summer sky. I must have been four or five, and he was a little bit older. Far above us, a Turkey Vulture tilted gently through the air.
“Buzzard,” the other kid said, pointing up. “They eat chickens.” My family had chickens and his did not, so I was pretty sure that this was incorrect. But I was too shy to argue. That was my first encounter—but not my last—with other people’s irrational dislike of vultures.
Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird sets out to correct this dislike, as may be gleaned from the subtitle, and it is not shy about that at all. It is grounded in a focus on Turkey Vultures, the buzzards of my youth, and on the mid-Atlantic region between Pennsylvania and Virginia. However, the book goes beyond these bounds whenever necessary, and to excellent effect.
Author Katie Fallon makes it clear that she is an unabashed vulture advocate from the start. Her work in wildlife rehabilitation and education has brought her close to many of these birds—both Turkey Vultures and their smaller but in some ways more rambunctious cousins the Black Vultures—and convinced her that they are social, adaptable, and intelligent creatures on a personal level as well as beneficial and benevolent ones in terms of their ecological role. She delivers fascinating facts on vulture taxonomy, behavior, evolution, and lore with aplomb. She also doles out important information on the anthropogenic dangers facing vultures, from incidental poisoning by lead and diclofenac to outright hostility and persecution. She even ends the book with a section on how readers can take action to support vulture conservation.
This isn’t the conventional wildlife story where rarity and fragility equals value and demands action. Fallon points out early on that the Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture are both common species, currently increasing in population, not shy of humans and seemingly helped more than hindered by human inventions like highways and their attendant stocks of roadkill. Instead, Fallon makes the in some ways more radical case that these tough, commonplace birds are valuable for their own sakes, and should not be taken for granted simply because they’re thriving right now. After all, some of the now-endangered vulture species of Asia and Africa were once common as well.
If education was all Fallon did, this would be a fun and interesting read, but she goes much further. In terms of exploring the connection between human and raptor while allowing each species to be itself, this book invites comparison with the classic H Is for Hawk. While the language in Vulture partakes less of poetry and the scope less of philosophy, there’s no lack of fine description and introspection. Importantly, though, Vulture centers less on a single individual bird. The relationship that Fallon develops with Lew, an unreleasable Turkey Vulture who becomes an education bird, is touching, but it is not the whole story. Indeed, with her lucid explanations of Turkey Vulture subspecies, differing migration patterns among populations, and other complexities, she makes it clear that no single vulture can represent the whole story of their species, let alone the entire group. In keeping with the scope of the book, the research program at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania—which fits nestling Turkey Vultures and rehabilitated adults with radio backpacks and wing tags to monitor their behavior—makes up as much of a through-line as Lew’s story.
The result is a book that has a wider, albeit more diffuse, lens. Wider in time: Fallon starts the book pregnant with her first child and ends it having just delivered her second, and beyond that she explores her own childhood and education, the sweep of history, and even evolutionary deep time for traces of human-vulture interaction. Wider in space: she travels not only around the mid-Atlantic but to the Midwest, the Desert Southwest, into California Condor country, and as far afield as India to visit a formerly vulture-feeding temple while explaining the plight of Old World vultures.
If I were to make one criticism of Fallon’s writing it would be that she is so in love with her subject that she sometimes gets carried away. This mostly takes the form of repetition, particularly in her praise for the vultures’ (admittedly oft-overlooked) beauty—their enormous wingspans, the glossy sheen and vivid head coloring of the adult Turkey Vultures, the perceptive depths she sees in their eyes. Occasionally she takes a leap of logic that seems a bit daring—particularly when she ties the presence of vultures near the camps of Paleolithic humans with the development of music in our species. While it’s true that a flute of carved vulture bone is among the earliest confirmed examples of a human-made musical instruments, it’s hard to agree that the bone being that of a vulture is especially significant. Another bird’s bone could have served the purpose and so could many other materials. In fact, fragmentary flutes made of mammoth ivory have been found at the same site, and flutes of reed, though less likely to be preserved, would if anything have been easier to manufacture.
But such flaws never rise to the level of outright inaccuracy, at least not that I could tell, and are almost endearing when taken as part of the work’s overall enthusiasm. Ultimately the book makes its case—that Turkey Vultures, and vultures as a group, deserve advocates who will fight to see them respected and protected. And for the most part the excursions that Fallon’s mind takes, such as those into forensics and the work of the Beat poet (and Turkey Vulture admirer) Lew Welch, are well worth tagging along for.
On the whole, this is an excellent quick read, suitable not only for bird lovers and naturalists but for anyone with a bit of natural curiosity and an inclination to root for the common, the misunderstood, and the underdog.
Laben, C. 2020. A profound look at an overlooked bird [a review of Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, by Katie Fallon]. Birding 53 (5): 48–49.
Carrie Laben is the author of the novel A Hawk in the Woods and the forthcoming novella The Water Is Wide. Her work has appeared in such venues as Apex, The Dark, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, and Outlook Springs, winning the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction (for “Postcards from Natalie”) and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize (for “The Wrong Place”) along the way. She’s been a MacDowell Fellow and a resident at the Anne LaBastille Memorial Residency and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and lives in Queens, where she is at work on her next novel. Her website is www.carrielaben.com.
Author photo taken by Adrianne Mathiowetz.