10. Tenth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Rica
You don’t have to go to Costa Rica to see black vultures, Coragyps atratus. There’s a pretty good population of them throughout much of the New World, including Oklahoma, where I first learned their scientific name under the tutelage of George M. Sutton, famous ornithologist at OU. There’s also one at the Wild Bird Rescue, Inc., headquarters at 4611 Lakeshore Drive, Wichita Falls, Texas, where it displays what the average person would consider some rather un-vulture-like behavior, for example, preening the hair of its handler and jumping from window to window to check out visitors walking along the wooden deck outside its building. In Costa Rica, late February, among our traveling companions, C. atratus quickly became the “black-headed vultures” as opposed to “red-headed vultures” which were Cathartes aura, turkey vultures, also a common species in the United States, although commonly occurring further north than do C. atratus.
So why do I finish this series of short writings about an ecotourism trip with comments on vultures? That’s a pretty good question for which I have no answer, except that two of my previous contacts with New World vultures were pretty memorable, and in preparation for our other ecotourism trips, to Botswana and Tanzania, I studied my Old World vultures, hoping to see several species up close. Old World vultures are not closely related to New World vultures, thus provide a pretty good example of convergent evolution. Evidently, if you’re digging around in carcasses, head feathers are an evolutionary liability, thus the baldness of vultures in general.
What made those previous encounters with vultures so memorable? One, in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma, was with a really small chick. I crawled into a hole and there it was, beautiful, looking up, maybe asking for a piece of dead rabbit. I was on a field trip with George M. Sutton at the time, and we passed the “nestling” around before returning it to its crevice. The second encounter was also on a trip with Sutton, to western Oklahoma, where he knew about a nest in an abandoned chicken coop. I crawled in between the boards and was confronted with an adolescent turkey vulture who stood up and slowly regurgitated, about an inch from my nose, the most putrid mass of stuff I’ve ever smelled. Sutton thought that was pretty funny. I still get nauseated just thinking about that event from back in the 60s. My encounters with African vultures were all via camera, although for a book that’s coming out in April, I did a drawing of one to introduce a chapter entitled “A Warning.” No, in that chapter, if you read Africa Notes: Reflections of an Ecotourist, you won’t be attacked by a vulture, but by the mental impact of foreign travel and what that travel does to your sense of what’s happening in our nation today.