A favorite sighting when I walk Monterey Bay’s most deserted beaches is of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), and that’s because of the associated detective story — the whodunit. This is how today’s saga unfolded.
On my walk this morning, I noticed a vulture perched on a rock in the warm morning sun. I stopped. I usually happen upon these birds on the beach, and they blend with the sand and kelp wrack so well that I often spook them before I can get a close-up look. This vulture didn’t seem to be bothered by me so I moved around to get a closer view. That’s when I saw them all.
There were four vultures on the rocks, which meant a dinner party and something dead nearby. On our beaches I find vultures dining most often on seals and sea lions. They’re common along our coast, but like all animals, they have to deal with the elements, find food, not get eaten, and avoid the hazards of living near humans. It’s tough and many don’t succeed.
I scanned the beach for the vultures’ meal. On the sand among the wrack at the high tide line was a dead young sea lion. From where I stood I should have been able to smell it, but couldn’t, so the carcass wasn’t very old. There was a vulture eyeing it, but not eating. My approach may have interrupted the feast, or the vultures were taking a break to warm in the sun and let the carcass ripen.
The reason why vultures on the beach fascinate me is, in part, being able to witness the drama of life, but mostly because the scene is so primordial. Turkey vultures, along with California condors and other scavenging birds of prey, have been dining on the carcasses of marine mammals on our beaches for millions of years. These scenes are a rare view back in time that don’t last long. These days we (municipalities) pull the decaying whale off the beach or bury the carcass. And I understand why — they’re gross. They’re not pleasant to smell or behold, and vultures, gulls and others are such slow decomposers. But the scenes are so real — not today’s reality TV version of real, but normal life and death real.
The whodunit story, though, isn’t about the vultures, but the killer: what caused the death of the vultures’ meal? It’s nearly impossible to tell just by looking at the body and I’m not equipped to conduct a necropsy (the examination of a non-human body to determine cause of death). Mostly the cause is “natural” starvation, parasites or disease. Sometimes though it is obvious, like a shark bite or interaction with humans, as in the case of the rope around this seal that I found vultures feeding on last fall.
The human-caused deaths are the ones that most disturb me. Even though vultures and others get a meal from such deaths, it feels tragic, like a wasted life, because it’s due to our carelessness.
I’ve worked on issues of wildlife and their human-caused deaths for nearly 40 years. When I started, many people said that we shouldn’t worry about one life — one vole caught by a cat, one owl hit by a car, one entangled whale or sea lion. And, they’d be right if it was only a few here and there. But we know from the news, from wildlife rescuers, from researchers that the cumulative actions of so many of us are devastating — so much of our debris on beaches and in the ocean. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. We could reverse our cumulative course. If each of us picked up beach trash, carried a reusable bottle/mug, walked more and drove less, and voiced our concerns, our cumulative impact could become hugely positive. (Chris Rowan has a great article about cumulative effects entitled 10 million feet upon the stair.)
So the next time you see a vulture circling or on the beach, think about the modern-day whodunit we’re living and your role in making the ending happy.
California Nature Mapping Project: Turkey vulture