EH Out Loud
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
Season 1, Episode 2: Vultures in the Americas
We move beyond the Hudson Valley to investigate vulture research across the Americas. We talk to a scientist and cultural anthropologist whose respective interests share some interesting overlaps.
Voice: Experimental Humanities
Krista Caballero: Hi, and welcome back to EH Out Loud! I’m Krista Caballero, the Associate Director here at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities, where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human. This season, we’re talking about vultures. In our last episode, you heard us talk about vultures here on campus. Today, we’re moving outside the Hudson Valley to learn from those who’ve been studying vultures across the Americas. Here at EH, we’re interested in furthering conversation and collaboration between traditionally disparate disciplines. So for this episode, we’re speaking with a scientist and a cultural anthropologist to give you a sense of the breadth of vulture research being done and the ways in which these disciplines lend themselves to a cross-pollination of ideas. We Skyped with Alexis Brewer, a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior at the City University of New York. Alexis’ research focuses specifically on turkey vultures in urban environments. First, we asked her why she studies turkey vultures in particular:
Alexis Brewer: Turkey vultures have some really interesting evolutionary adaptations that we don’t see in other species. First of all, vultures in general are the only obligate scavengers in the world, and that just means— the fancy way to say that they have to scavenge to survive. So, when we talk about bears or coyotes or red foxes or anything else that we see in the scavenger community, they can all hunt, and live off things that they kill themselves through predation. But turkey vultures in particular, but black vultures as well, or all vultures, have to scavenge to survive and so that’s a really unique thing in the animal world. We don’t see that in any other bird species, we don’t see that in any mammal species whatsoever, so it makes them very unique and very interesting.
Krista Caballero: And she told us about what it’s like to study vultures in urban environments:
Alexis Brewer: Yeah, so this is one reason why we study scavengers as urban ecologists or as ecologists interested in how people affect biodiversity because we really have some variable effects on scavengers in general but vultures in particular. Because we can provide positive impacts for them through food availability, by driving on roads and accidentally hitting animals, we can increase food availability. But, we’re also introducing them to other things. So we see in old world vultures, which just means vultures not in the US, sorry, not in the Americas I should say, they have been exposed to a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory or an NSAID called diclofenac which caused a massive die off in that population, a 98 percent die off in that population. And while we haven’t seen that yet in the United States, birds in prey in general are very vulnerable to things like lead and other contaminants in the environment. So we have this variable impact on scavengers, but they really are suited to exploit our resources, through landfill use or through roadkill and so it creates this really interesting push and pull within the environment and within different species.
Krista Caballero: Really interesting, and so then with turkey vultures in the— in sort of New York state, what kinds of issues are you seeing, specifically, in terms of pollution and so forth?
Alexis Brewer:Yeah, so we are definitely finding that they are— they like human resources, which is not surprising to be fair. If you go to any landfill in the United States that’s uncovered, you will find lots of turkey vultures and black vultures, and actually bald eagles and a variety of other species; gull species. But we know that vultures— we are finding actual quantitative evidence that they are spending more time eating human resources than we would expect, based on the amount of territory that they cover. So that does mean that there is some type of behavioral shift or foraging strategy shift that we’re seeing in vultures. And this is leading to some interesting– well one of the hypotheses we’ve seen that turkey vultures and black vultures are expanding their ranges northward and we’ve been trying to figure out why. And one of the hypotheses is that it’s food availability, as well as perhaps climate change. The food availability seems to be the stronger hypothesis at the moment. And this idea that they are really depending on anthropogenic resources supports that idea. So we don’t have definitive proof yet, but it is certainly looking like human resources are increasing that population range. And we’re also seeing throughout the United States, this is not just specific to New York state, but we’re seeing increased incidents of human-wildlife conflict between vultures and especially farmers. Perhaps you’ve seen the news recently coming out of the Southern United States, where farmers believe that vultures; black vultures mostly, but some reports of turkey vultures, that they might be predating their livestock. And vulture researchers are by in large pretty skeptical of this. Even if it does happen, it would be a very unusual situation.* So we have to kind of start learning more about these, what we call synanthropic species; species who spend time around people. How they behave and that can shed some light on whether or not they’re actually— is happening what people think are happening, and then perhaps how to ameliorate that, but the first step is to really understand how they interact with people and livestock.
Krista Caballero:We also asked Alexis to tell us more about turkey vultures expanding their range northward:
Alexis Brewer: Certainly is true that turkey vultures are expanding their range northward faster than black vultures. It’s a little unclear if— I would almost think it’s more a result of that behavioral difference. Because they are more exploratory, they’re trying to find resources and the black vultures are kind of predisposed to follow the turkey vultures. It’s almost more that the turkey vultures are facilitating the black vulture range expansion through a behavioral system that’s already in place. Turkey vultures move someplace, black vultures follow them. That’s already in place within their regular range, and as they push their range northward, the black vulture just keeps doing what it’s always doing and the turkey vultures, doing what it always does too, they just have more places to go. But, I don’t know anybody that’s actually testing that, so that’s a great— I’d have to think about how to do it.
Krista Caballero: We then discussed how we tend to anthropomorphize vultures and whether we as humans are imagining them in communities that resemble our own:
Alexis Brewer: Vultures are what we call communal roosters, they will even— turkey vultures and black vultures will even roost together at times, though usually— it depends on the location. Usually see one species or the other, but you can see them mixed together. And in general there’s probably a couple reasons they do this. It can be for protection; safety in numbers type idea. Research has shown in a variety of species that the larger the group, each animal is spending less time in vigilance behavior which means they can relax more, right? So, you can think about this very logically, if you’re out by yourself in some scary area, you’re constantly looking around but if you’re with a couple of your other friends, you relax a little, because you’re— you have that safety net. So birds are the same way. The other idea is that perhaps, which I think is really fascinating, well I should say— get to the most exciting one for me in a second. The other one is perhaps warmth as well, so you know, more bodies together increases warmth, especially during colder months. But the third one that is very exciting is perhaps that it’s actually facilitating communication. Whether it’s intentional or not is unknown, but you can imagine if you’re hungry, and you go to bed at night and you’re laying down and your friend comes down and lays in the bed next to you and he smells like your favorite meal; cheeseburgers or something, and you’re starving, and you wake up the next day and you’re friend seems to have a mission right, he just jumps out of bed and he’s walking off, flying off, to go do something you’re like, I think I’m gonna’ go see if he gets another cheeseburger today right? [laughter] So they’re doing this— once again it’s perhaps it’s accidental but they are sharing information. So what we see when we put out— so we put out camera traps for some of our studies where we can see who’s— which animal, which species, and how frequently they’re visiting a carcass. And what we often see is that say a turkey vulture or two will show up one day, and then they go and they sleep and they’re probably in that communal roost and sure enough when they come back the next day, they come back with all their friends. And so then we have this big flock of vultures that are all eating. So this is a very, you know, that would be a positive selection pressure for this roosting behavior and it’s kind of neat to think about them sharing information and that’s really facilitating the health of the entire community probably.
Krista Caballero: And as we wrapped up our conversation, Alexis told us about the real effects that our bias against vultures has on research:
Alexis Brewer: People get upset about vultures, they, they have this very real aversion to them. That’s actually one reason why the research on scavengers is lagging behind. Research in say, predation or herbivory, or anything else like that. Though that’s changing, thankfully so— but— Yeah, this idea that, first of all, that there’s some evil perception of vultures. That they’re waiting for things to die or— quite frankly, they really aren’t. [laughs] They’re looking for things that are already dead, and— I go ahead and embrace the ick factor, right? That it is gross, I mean there’s, there’s nothing about it that’s not gross. But that being said, so is predation. If you’ve watched any NatGeo things or something like that. There’s no real getting around that either right? It’s just a little bit more glamorous. So, you know, embracing that it can be a little gross but then also that it’s a real service that these animals are doing for us and it’s going to become increasingly more so because most of the research points to— as we experience increased climate change we’re going to start seeing mass mortality of animals that are failing to adjust to climate change fast enough. Or due to diseases spreading or what have you, and so our role of our vertebrates scavengers is going to be absolutely pivotal in the coming, you know, however long. And so if we embrace that part of it, and kind of accept that sometimes it is a little gross and sometimes it’s not something we want to think about, but that they’re a vital part of the ecosystem. I think, I think that would do better, or people would be a little bit less upset about them? Because we see that, some people might not realise this, maybe they do, I don’t know, but condors are vultures right? And people love condors, like condors are super cool. They’re giant birds, they’re beautiful, but they’re vultures, and so if you can appreciate the condor, hopefully you can gain a little appreciation for our turkey vultures and black vultures here in the Northeast as well.
Krista Caballero: We also had the chance to Skype with Nicole Sault, a cultural anthropologist who splits her time between Oaxaca, Mexico, and California. Nicole’s research explores the symbolic attributes of birds and in particular, how the beliefs and practices about birds among indigenous cultures of the Americas can teach us about our relationship to the world and our obligations for reciprocity.
Nicole Sault: Well, vultures are a keystone species. They are teachers; they teach us about the environment and other worlds, but they only can teach us if we attend to them, and if we listen. And they have very important messages to give us now during these times of climate crisis. In Bolivia, for example, the lakes are dying because mining takes so much water away and indigenous fishing communities are performing ceremonies of symbolically burying the lake because it is dying. They say, “This will leave us as orphans when the lake dies”. So what do we who support mining companies in, you know, in the US and Canada, whatever— What can we do in recognition of the fact that those minerals that are being mined are coming back; they’re being used by us. People even talk about having valued minerals and oil as a curse. What do we say to those communities?
Krista Caballero: Following up on that, what do you see as the most potent symbols of myths including vultures today?
Nicole Sault: Birds are sentinels and it’s not just the canary in the coal mine, but the vultures in the sky. So it’s very important for us to pay attention to what they have to tell us. And when people are— feel repugnance toward, toward vultures for example, then that is an indication that something needs to be— what is it that is making people feel repulsed or feel that this— these birds have nothing to teach me, you know, I have nothing to learn from them. Those are important message points. And when somebody says “Oh no, that doesn’t apply to me,” that tells you something also. Even though it’s a negative response, it’s an indication to pay attention. Why does the person say that? You know, how do you follow up a question that explores that negative reaction? So that’s why when people say, “Oh, vultures are disgusting,” I always ask them well, why? And I think some of it has to do with the American fear of death. And so you know, carrion is so emblematic of death and decomposition—
Krista Caballero: Yeah
Nicole Sault: —that people that have issues with death don’t want to deal with carrion eaters. But most cultures recognize the value of vultures and their beauty, their spiritual power, their connection between worlds, their role as mediators, that they are protectors of not only mountains, but the water. They’re arbiters of justice, for example in the altiplano highlands of the Andes in Bolivia, the local authorities have a staff of office. And the staff of office has a silver condor head on the top of the staff. And condors are also associated with reciprocity.
Krista Caballero: We asked Nicole more about the role that condors play in Incan mythology:
Nicole Sault: The kind of tourist focused merchandise that you see makes it look like there’s these three separate planes of existence. But actually—
Krista Caballero: Yeah
Nicole Sault: –in the– In Peru the Quechua speaking peoples considered the Milky Way to be this, this path of a river. They call the Milky Way “Mayu,” which in Quechua means river. And that in this river of stars, [rumbling noise in background] there are these dark star constellations. And these dark star constellations include llamas, a shepard, a condor, and the snake. As well as a toad and a partridge and other, other beings.
Krista Caballero: Nicole sent us a poem called “Vulture” by the poet Robinson Jeffers, who wrote a lot about environmentalism. Here it is:
Robert Cape: “Vulture” by Robinson Jeffers: I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside / Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling / high up in heaven, / And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit / narrowing, / I understood then / That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight- / feathers / Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. / I could see the naked red head between the great wings / Bear downward staring. I said, “My dear bird, we are wasting time / here. / These old bones will still work; they are not for you.” But how / beautiful / he looked, gliding down / On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the / sea-light / over the precipice. I tell you solemnly / That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak / and / become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes– / What a sublime end of one’s body, what and enskyment; what a life / after death.
Krista Caballero: Here’s what Nicole had to say about the poem:
Nicole Sault: It’s about the longing for connection. And we’ve— we’ve become alienated from the Earth, from other species or other beings, and from ourselves. Vultures can help us reconnect. And notice how they teach in silence.
Krista Caballero: Despite having different research practices, both Alexis and Nicole speak to the integral role that vultures play as indicator species, both in terms of biodiversity as well as cultural values. And both touch on the importance of listening to vultures— literally and figuratively. You can find further research from our guests and others in the show notes.
Krista Caballero: EH Out Loud is produced at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities by me, Krista Caballero, Corinna Cape, Bird Cohen, and Ariel West. Fact checking and transcription by Anna Hallett Gutierrez and Cymone Richardson. Sound editing and music by Ariel West and Bird Cohen. Special thanks to Alexis Brewer, Robert Cape, Maria Sachiko Cecire, Djimon Gibson, Erik Kiviat, Laurie Husted, Arthur Holland Michel, Bruce Robertson, Susan Fox Rogers, Nicole Sault, and the Experimental Humanities Media Corps. Visit us at eh.bard.edu to learn about our vulture research as well as other projects at the Center.
*For further research on ways human-vulture conflicts are often due to biased human perceptions please see: DURIEZ, OLIVIER, et al. “Vultures Attacking Livestock: a Problem of Vulture Behavioural Change or Farmers’ Perception?” Bird Conservation International, vol. 29, no. 3, 2019, pp. 437–453., doi:10.1017/S0959270918000345.