The thing with my Miriam Black books is, they’re all named after birds. It starts with Blackbirds, then moves to Mockingbird, The Cormorant, and now, Thunderbird. (If I can write one called Blue-Footed Booby, I will, so don’t tempt me, goddamnit.) Part of the reason for that is the mystic, supernatural symbolism sometimes associated with birds (particularly as psychopomps), and also because Miriam eventually through the story gains the ability to control birds by entering their minds. At the start of Thunderbird, she, umm, requires the help of some vultures to complete a task.
Now, vultures are pretty bad-ass birds. We don’t think of them as such – we think of them as lazy, dull scavengers, but that’s not true at all.
We have a local animal rescue near us, and they do a lot of work with rehabilitating birds – or housing birds that cannot be rehabilitated – and so I got to meet and study some vultures, and learn some charming facts about these gorgeous and grotesque harbingers of death.
Let us begin.
1.) Vultures are not only scavengers. We think of them as picking meat off roadkill, but make no mistake, some vultures are happy to go predator when it suits them. Black vultures in particular sometimes perform acts of predation on livestock. They’ll besiege baby cows and eat them alive. They’ll even find a larger cow—usually a sick one—and mob its back and peck out its eyes. (They do not generally attack healthy livestock, however.)
2.) Vultures have featherless scalps because it makes it all the easier for them to plunge their entire faces into a carcass. It makes sure they can easily extract their heads from the body without also bringing up lots of parasites and other bacteria. It’s like bobbing for apples, except in this instance, the ‘apples’ are actually ‘half-rotten internal organs.’ Diagnosis: delicious.
3.) I am nothing if not a fan of the collective nouns of various animals. Vultures share two collective nouns. When in flight, they are a kettle of vultures. When on the ground, gathered to feed, they are a wake of vultures.
4.) Vultures are associated with various burial rituals. In Tibet, a corpse is left upon a mountain to be disposed of, in part, by vultures. In Zoroastrian tradition, bodies are left upon a raised structure – a Tower of Silence – where carrion birds like vultures are meant to cleanse the body of its flesh.
5.) Vultures pee on their feet to keep cool. But really, who doesn’t?
6.) Vultures can weaponize their own barf. Yes, that’s right. No, you didn’t misread that. See, vultures like to feed on the most disgusting food imaginable — dead things. As such, their intense digestive systems house a rather toxic slurry of rancid, ruined food. When threatened, a vulture can disgorge this vital slurry onto an attacker – meaning, they projectile barf the nastiest hell-soup onto whoever would dare to interrupt their meal. (Which also lightens them for a fast flight away.) Pro-tip: don’t interrupt a vulture’s meal.
7.) Vultures are a vital part of an ecosystem, but can be threatened by those who think of them as vicious predators or as disease-carriers. They are also vulnerable to cars, to pesticides, to other poisons. Many of India’s vultures are nearly extinct, now: where once there were 80 million white-rumped vultures, for instance, now there are only a few hundred thousand. Why is this? Livestock in the country were fed an anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, that was fatal to vultures. Vultures would swoop in, eat the dead and disposed-of livestock, and perish. A healthy ecosystem includes scavengers, and that means a healthy ecosystem involves vultures. (Consider donating to projects aimed at saving vulture populations in Asia and around the world.)
Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of many published novels, including but not limited to: Blackbirds, The Blue Blazes, the YA Heartland series, and the New York Times bestselling series Star Wars: Aftermath; the third book in the trilogy, Empire’s End is out this February. He is co-writer of the short film Pandemic and the Emmy Award–nominated digital narrative Collapsus. Wendig has contributed over two million words to the game industry. His collaborative comic book project, The Sovereigns will be released from Dynamite in April. He is also well known for his profane-yet-practical advice to writers, which he dispenses at his blog, TerribleMinds.com, and through several popular ebooks, including The Kick-Ass Writer, published by Writers Digest. He currently lives in the forests of Pennsyltucky with wife, tiny human, and dog.