Even if you do not already admire the Turkey Vulture as a master of sustained and effortless flight, and its willingness to consume the deceased animal life that would fester and overwhelm us were it not for these efficient scavengers, you will find Vulture: the private life of an unloved bird University Press of New England, 2017), by author Katie Fallon, to be well worth your indulgence.
Experience informs the advocate, and Fallon does a superb job at weaving her personal life experiences into the narrative of this story. The natural arcs would be the life history of her subjects, from egg to adult; or the migratory journey of a vulture. Indeed, Fallon employs these natural rhythms as elements of continuity; but it turns out not all Turkey Vultures do migrate, a fascinating aspect of the diverse biology of the species.
Familiarity cannot breed contempt in the case of vultures because people, including avian scientists, are simply not familiar with these birds. Much of the content in Vulture represents new information, acquired within the last decade or so, resulting from tagging studies. Vultures cool themselves by urinating and defecating on their feet, which quickly corrodes the metal ankle-bands used by scientists on other birds, hence the need to apply the wing tag strategy instead.
An unexpected and welcome element to the book is the frequent addition of information that applies to other vulture species. The Turkey Vulture is the main character, but our avian hero is also employed here as a messenger for other vulture species all over the planet. Fallon shares her own globe-trekking adventures as they relate to other vultures, like the Egyptian Vulture in India, where the birds have vanished from a sacred Hindu temple they once visited like clockwork. Old World and New World vultures are not as closely related as one might imagine, but they suffer, unfortunately, from the same conflicts with humans.
It is easy for advocates of any orphaned or maligned species to be overly zealous in their efforts to educate; or be too sternly admonishing in addressing those people who lack an understanding and respect for other life forms. Fallon should be commended for reining in her emotions while still managing to be assertive in her opinions and policy recommendations when it comes to vulture "management" here in the U.S. She backs up her statements at every step, and also informs the reader when there is a need for more study to conclude whether a given assertion can be proven.
Fallon should not be compared to any other writer. She confesses to her admiration for Edward Abbey and other predecessors, but her writing stands on its own merits, with a unique and welcome new voice. This book enjoys the personal qualities of a memoir, but those insights and life events are used like spices in a favorite recipe: Not as a dependent "crutch" or overwhelming element, but instead adding just a touch of flavor and eloquence to the literary dish.
This book is about vultures in the human world, but nowhere in the story does the human aspect overly intrude. The great birds are front-and-center, consistently painted in a positive and empathetic light. It is to Fallon's credit that she is able to coax the reader into the same love affair with vultures that she herself enjoys, without romanticizing her subject to the point of putting off her audience. As a male reader, I find this a tricky path that Fallon negotiates with precision and consistency. Her research is far-reaching and impeccable.
Vulture ends with an afterword that leads readers to the next step: their own advocacy for vultures and related birds of prey. It may seem naive to believe that one book could generate enough momentum to result in a surge of sustained interest in promoting vulture conservation the world over, but I have high hopes. Fallon seamlessly integrates the plight of vultures into the landscape of wildlife conservation in general. What we do for vultures we do for the health of entire ecosystems....but don't take my word for it, read Vulture for yourself.