Friday, January 11, 2008


I consider myself a student and have recently acquired a new teacher. I most often seek my teaching from above, but some of the lessons come from ‘an above’ that is just high enough to have a different vantage point. I find over and over again my teachers are of the feathered variety.

Looking on earlier writing, I realize that I have written often about my feathered teachers, and it surprises me at how powerful the lessons can be. This lesson is compliments of Harold.

We have the good fortune of attracting birds (teachers) of all types in my back yard. They say when the student is ready; the teacher appears, so perhaps this speaks to my willingness or need to learn more. At this time of year, we entertain cardinals, doves, blue jays, swallows, black birds, hawks and owls. We have a large flock of wild turkeys that I have been watching for years. Isabel, a young female from the flock, was, for reasons unknown, ousted and has since begun her own community. A clutch of six developed a nice group of young followers and Isabel has since merged teams with another; a large male and another adult female with young. They have made my back yard a regular spot and once birds have taken up residence in both my yard and my heart, they become mine.

Harold has just moved into the big oak tree behind the barn and he is not part of my turkey flock. Harold is a turkey vulture. Most mornings, Harold and his family can be seen in the tree or on the barn, and at most recent count, I see twenty-one turkey vultures. Harold, the only adult male I see, often positions himself on the top of a nearby telephone pole watching his family. He has, on occasion, come house-top to take a closer look at my little dog, Keeper. After a few graceful circles, Harold moves close to survey the possibilities. He is not frightened by Cadence’s frantic waving or whistling for Keeper to seek shelter, but cocks his unattractive head in observation. Eventually, seeing no opportunity for a meal, he returns to the pole and stands tall with his wings spread, as if telling the family to stay put.

Fascinated by his massive size and seeming control of both the sky and his flock, I googled Harold to learn all I could about him. This is where his teaching begins.

The turkey vulture weighs over six pounds and has a wing span of six feet. He glides low to the ground, seldom flapping his wings and lives in large communities called Venues. The part of his brain that processes smell is very large compared to other birds, enabling him to smell food below far beneath the forest canopy. He has few natural predators and can live 30 years. I would categorize these as Harold’s strengths.

Unlike old world relatives, the new world turkey vulture has weak, chicken- like feet and smaller talons, more suitable for running, and cannot carry food. He has a smaller thinner beak than his raptor relatives and cannot usually break through the thick skin of his prey; relying on other birds to open the feast. He nests in ground caves or in low lying bushes. He lacks a synrix, the vocal cord of a bird, and can only hiss or grunt. He is quite ugly, having only a thin downy covering on his reddish head. I would consider these his weaknesses.

The turkey vulture has adapted a life style that compensates for these weaknesses and capitalizes on his strengths. He is a perfect balance and able to thrive in many areas and conditions. His graceful low gliding abilities, keen sense of smell and sharp eyesight allow him to detect prey easily. He cleverly awaits the first diner to prepare the way for him, and then uses his size to place himself at the head of the table. His baldish head allows him to “dig in” without wearing his dinner as a hat.

His highly sophisticated immune system allows him to dine on decay without becoming sick, and an efficient kidney allows his own waste to be high in uric acid, thus sanitizing his feet and killing off the bacteria that could remain after standing in his dinner. Being a ground feeder, he could be vulnerable to predators, but he has earned himself a reputation for being one not to mess with, as his self defense is to projectile vomit on his attacker. The result is either a tasty and easy meal for the predator, if the turkey vulture has recently dined, thus deterring attention from the turkey, or a horrific, semi-digested weapon that has earned him the ‘off limits’ title he sports.

So why on earth is Harold my teacher? Harold has achieved the perfect balance of weakness and strength with total acceptance of his own blueprint. He does not try to be an eagle or a dove, but is content using his own strengths for his survival and for the good of the venue. As human beings, we often struggle against the odds to be something we are not, instead of appreciating what we are and using it for our benefit and the good of others. Harold is not the prettiest of birds and has to work hard to survive, but watching him soar and glide with such grace and elegance is proof positive that in everything there is beauty and purpose.
Thank you Harold, my teacher.


Kapuananiokalaniakea said...

Thank YOU for being my teacher today and reminding me to accept and appreciate both my strengths and my weaknesses and allow myself to be me.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Lovely, lovely, very lovely! I am especially intrigued by the projectile vomit!

Terry Whitaker said...

ditto, Hawaiian girl. You are the teacher today!

This is actually the concept I am attempting to build my entire business on--let's all do what we're good at and not keep trying to get better at stuff we stink at. (I know, so eloquent)

Deb said...

You've made me appreciate one of my favorite birds even more than I already do. I'm envious that you have your very own venue - I have to go to the Columbia Gorge to enjoy them up close here.

Jerri said...

If I could, I'd present a bright, shiny apple to you, my teacher today.

Thank you for this beautiful post and valuable reminder.

Michelle O'Neil said...

The vomit trick is ingenious!