To Catch the Morning Sun

turkey vulture

Freyer | Pixabay

By Susan Hand Shetterly

Sometimes birds we think of as belonging somewhere else — birds from away — arrive in increasing numbers year after year and become one of our own. What brings them here? It may be a warming climate or changes to their habitat or food supply. Or they follow roads that open up easy pathways, like rivers do.

Consider the turkey vulture: Once a southern bird, they are part of our seasonal fauna now, like the hummingbirds that arrive in my yard around Mother’s Day. In March, the turkey vultures ride the thermals above our roads, circling, moving northward in slow migration. In a day, they can coast in a widening gyre, from Massachusetts into Maine.

Ora Knight’s Birds of Maine, published in 1908, records a couple turkey vultures in the state. By the ’70s, although still somewhat unusual, more and more were taking the thermals north on 5½-foot wingspans, rocking slowly from side to side, their wings lifted in a shallow V. The ’70s are when I came to Maine, but I didn’t see them then. They hadn’t reached my part of the state.

Like the turkey vultures, I had come to make myself a good life. While I learned to make bread and plant seedlings, they extended their range north and east. Silent, except for an occasional hiss or muted growl, they are sober birds, serious about the work they do, which is to clean up roadkill and other offerings of carrion. One of the few species of bird in the world that has not only exceptional vision, but also a superb sense of smell, they can detect carrion a mile away.

Like the turkey vultures, I had come to Maine to make myself a good life. 

Today, I sit on a chair inside a large cage, home to a male turkey vulture. He lives permanently at a wildlife center on Mount Desert Island because he has acclimated to people and can’t be released. I hope I can learn something about these birds just by sitting quietly with him. He peers at me from behind the branch of a large dead tree. He’s curious, not frightened. His bare head is rosy-red; his eyes obsidian, large, and studious; and his beak is as white as a giant pearl. I think he is beautiful, but I try not to stare. The ruff of jet-black feathers around his neck curls and fluffs like an Elizabethan collar. He looks a bit like the portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of Queen Bess.

He flaps to a plywood platform and paces slowly back and forth — as if he were thinking over why I’m here — and the claws on his long skinny toes tick against the wood. He throws me an occasional sideways glance. I have been told that he is smart and social, has warmed to his handlers, and enjoys a bit of play. He wears jesses on his legs because he enjoys stepping onto a falconer’s glove, when offered, for a hike around the wildlife center (the jesses clip to a ring on the glove). However, if he were taken into a classroom and held on the glove for children to enjoy, he might panic, and panic in a turkey vulture provokes a spew of vomit — an effective defense in the wild, a game-changer in a classroom. Here, in his safe cage, he is calm and gentle. A wonderful bird.

In high summer, I often spot a turkey vulture lifting above the shoreline and drifting languidly, primary feathers spread like fingers of enormous hands. Once I found a group of them up on the hill, perched in an oak, their wings spread to be warmed by the brilliance of the sun rising over Morgan Bay. They’re home, and so am I. We’re not from away anymore.


Susan Hand Shetterly

Susan Hand Shetterly is the author of nine books, including Settled in the Wild, which won the Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction in 2011. Her most recent title is Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge.