Imagine my shock. I poured a glass of fine wine for a French neighbor in New York and, before showing him the bottle, he identified it by a sniff – the region, vineyard, and almost got the vintage. My nose humbled by this feat, I gazed at a man who missed a vocation as a master sommelier.
Smell is our least sense (same for apes) that never garnered much public attention until becoming a symptom of covid-19 infection. An odor must be pungent for my nose to take notice, so I didn’t detect anything unusual in the air in our back forty. But my heart missed a beat when a dozen Black Vultures flew up on heavy wingbeats from behind a brush pile, looking like medieval plague doctors with a hooded beak.
I found a white-tailed deer lying on the ground, so recently dead that ants hadn’t found it yet. After moaning about the population boom of hooved locusts that devastate gardens and farms, I felt sad to see the beautiful animal, whose death is still a mystery. I left to bury it another day.
The story goes that birds, including Black Vultures, have a poor a sense of smell like us. But for every rule there seems an exception, and in this case several. The obvious one is the Brown Kiwi with nares at the tip of its long bill for sniffing earthworms in the dirt. Olfaction makes sense for a nocturnal species. The Turkey Vulture is a diurnal counterpart, and seldom is the hour when one isn’t patrolling overhead in wobbly flight.
Their large olfactory bulb with dense connections to receptors suggests an acute sense of smell. But discovery of their talent for smelling carrion up to a mile away came not from dissection but more serendipitously in 1938. They were spotted gathering at the site of a gas leak from pipes of the Union Oil Company, attracted by traces of mercaptan, a sulphurous additive that smells like rotten eggs.
Turkey Vultures are often first to find a meal not in plain sight, and Black Vultures tagging along never needed to evolve olfactory acuity.
Both species returned to feed, and repeatedly. They hadn’t waited for the meat to be tenderized, not because their stomachs can’t sterilize rotted food, but other scavengers might get there first. In four days, the deer weighing about 150 pounds was reduced to bare bones by the most efficient and discreet disposal agents around town. On average, each vulture feasted on a few pounds each day. They saved me the trouble of burying a corpse before neighbors with a finer sense of smell than mine complained.
“Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow on his shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was business-like usage in his steady gaze” (Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend).
Scavengers get a bad rap. In Dicken’s story, Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie made a living from scavenging corpses floating in the Thames. They rummaged pockets for valuables before giving the bodies up to the authorities. But one day he found a body with papers identifying it as John Harmon, a missing man, and Gaffer was accused of his murder. Living in squalor and in thickets of thieves, scavengers soon fall under suspicion of crime.
In Tudor England a skawager was a customs collector (a more honorable occupation today, although it still causes sinking feelings in a traveler waved to their desk). Over time, the word scavenger emerged as the name for any kind of street cleaner. In removing waste and carrion they performed useful services, although it was not realized until mid-Victorian times that they were helping to safeguard the public from epidemic diseases.
I remember scavengers when I was growing up in London. Those so-called “totters” were easily recognized with their horse and cart and hand bells or from their ringing voices,
“Rags and bones! Rags and bones!” We didn’t have much household waste in the 1950s
because post-war austerity still held a vice-grip on domestic budgets. Most of our stuff was collected by “dustmen” (garbage collectors), but some choice items were saved for the rag-and-bone man, like the remains of the Sunday roast joint which we were told would be rendered by some miracle into glue or soap. Children liked to stroke the horse stamping outside their homes while the man loaded his cart, but their parents often called them indoors until the ragamuffin went away.
In the BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son (1962-74), Harold and his irascible father Albert are in the business together, although not in any other sense together. Harold aspired to a better life, deriding Albert as “a dirty old man,” but his pretensions to middle class respectability in a rag-and-bone yard always let him down, especially with women. We laughed at the show from the comfort of our living room, and the comedy crossed the Atlantic to become Sanford and Son. It is harder for the Millennial Generation to understand the rag-and-bone trade because, after four centuries of keeping our streets cleaner and freer of disease, it had almost vanished by 1980. Its last representative in London, Alf Masterson, died in 2007.
Animal scavengers don’t enjoy any better reputation than rag-and-bone men. Hyenas, raccoons, rats, flies, dung beetles, et cetera are all regarded as vermin. And although birds are more generally loved than most other animals, vultures are regarded with particular loathing.
Riding the thermals, vultures are aerial marvels that catch the slightest uplift even on cold days; and to watch a condor hanging over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a memory to savor long after the vacation. In the eastern and southern USA turkey vultures and black vultures patrol the countryside from several hundred feet scouting for carrion
with their sharp eyes, although it is often the turkey vulture’s exceptional sense of smell that catches the first savory whiff of a meal. Where it dives its brethren quickly follow. Black vultures are the more sociable of the two species, but both are intelligent like that other carrion-eating family, the crows, but vultures are more reviled. The sight of a venue (the collective noun for a vulture gathering) around a carcass with their naked heads bobbing in and out of the gore looks revolting, although we don’t have the same reaction to the look-alike heads of wild turkeys. Baldness makes hygienic sense for this kind of diner, and it also helps to control body temperature in hot sun. Despite a scuzzy appearance, they are finicky about preening because their lives depend on their plumage.
These “buzzards” have become more common since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) which protects them from casual shooting, and they have spread north of the Mason-Dixon Line to breed in Canada. Perhaps they are responding to global warming, but certainly to food supplies.
According to the National Highway Traffic Administration the numbers of white-tailed deer have increased from half a million in 1900 to perhaps 15-20 million today, and many of them stalk suburban gardens and public parks close to roads. Every year 1.5 million vehicular accidents with deer are reported, which cause 150 human fatalities on average, 10,000
injuries, and a billion dollars in costs. Vultures have often cleaned the road-kill before a highway maintenance crew arrives to dispose of the carcass. They are not always so welcome, particularly at landfills and around dumpsters backing onto schools and shopping centers, but they always provide services gratis.
Vultures in India and Pakistan are not faring so well, and some are in crisis. Populations have crashed by 98% from consuming carcasses of livestock treated with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac. Despite bans on the veterinary drug, their numbers have not bounced back and the costs of losing these scavengers are tragic and still being counted. Carrion often carries disease organisms normally destroyed in the guts of vultures but which survive passage through feral dogs and rats, which become carriers and spread rabies, anthrax, brucellosis, plague, and dangerous strains of E. coli. Bites from these animals are now even more serious, and carcasses left to rot contaminate water supplies, adding to human misery and fatalities. The Parsi (Zoroastrians) mourn the vultures that used to consume their dead relatives in funeral rites, and we should grieve the loss for many reasons.
The habits of vultures have barred them from ever becoming symbols of a nation, although the American bald eagle is a part-time scavenger. Sometimes an eagle can be seen crouching over road-kill, and even in vulture company. Benjamin Franklin was unhappy when the bald eagle was chosen for the Great Seal of the USA, and in 1784 wrote his daughter Sally:
“For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…too lazy to fish for himself… (but) the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and…though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
If the ways of bald eagles made them ill-suited to be national symbols the British lion is also a national embarrassment. But many top predators—lions, tigers, white sharks, and even piranhas—will take carrion given an opportunity. And our prehistoric ancestors probably had few qualms about carving left-over flesh from beasts that were preyed on by other animals, which brings me back to our species as the top waste-maker and recycler.
Adam Minter, the son of a Minneapolis scrap dealer, describes how the humble rag-and-bone trade has evolved into a vast and hugely profitable industry (Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade). Canny businessmen have always known that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In Our Mutual Friend, the corpse that Gaffer Hexam recovered from the murky Thames was misidentified as John Harmon, the heir to a fortune made by his estranged father from collecting garbage from London streets. That reminds me of a sage saying I often heard in Yorkshire, “Where there’s muck there’s brass (money).”