For the Birds Radio Program: Making Life a Little Kinder for a Turkey Vulture

Original Air Date: April 6, 2001 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: March 17, 2017; April 6, 2016; Feb. 27, 2009; April 12, 2006; April 6, 2005; Oct. 13, 2004; July 22, 2004; Aug. 9, 2002

Making the world a kinder place may not necessarily require us to toss skunks across a ditch to make feeding safer for a Turkey Vulture. Or does it?

Duration: 4′08″


When I was a little girl, one time my mother took me on a trolley bus to the Chicago Loop. The bus was crowded, and I vividly remember how dozens of strangers smiled at me, and how friendly the whole world suddenly seemed to be. It seemed like any one of those smiling people would have helped if someone needed it.

I still like thinking the world is a friendly place where strangers smile at one another and help when someone is in need. I do my best to smile at every little child I pass, and even a lot of grownups. But somehow as I go through day-to-day life, I don’t think to do nice things nearly often enough. Last week I chanced upon an opportunity to do something kind for a total stranger, and although that stranger was a Turkey Vulture, helping out made me feel like I was a good person in a friendly world.

I’d been driving along Highway 13 in northern Wisconsin when I saw the vulture up ahead, flying down to a squashed skunk on the road. I slowed down to under 30, but he barely got one bite out of the skunk before he had to tear himself from his meal with that awkward gait that vultures have, wings spread, eyes in a panic at my car’s approach. He flapped and flapped, finally got airborne, and landed in a nearby tree.

I saw a pickup truck pulling a boat following me about a mile back in my rear-view-mirror. It wouldn’t take many cars and trucks before the skunk would be too plastered against the road to eat, and meanwhile the vulture itself might get hit. So I pulled over and stopped my car, ran back, picked up the smelly skunk by the tail, and threw it over to the edge of the woods.

I figured this would be an empty gesture–the vulture had been in such a panic that I didn’t think he’d come back anytime soon–but the moment the skunk hit the ground, the vulture looked into my eyes from his perch, blinked a couple of times, and dropped in a glide straight for the skunk while I was still within about ten feet of it. The truck roared past as the vulture descended, and the driver gave me a bewildered look. All I could do is shrug and laugh.

I don’t much like picking up roadkills, and this skunk was not just a mess, it was a smelly mess. I had picked it up very gingerly using just my fingertips, but it still made my hand smell bad enough that my dog Photon recoiled and wouldn’t sit next to me for the rest of the ride home.

A lot of people think Turkey Vultures are ugly, but when I looked into that one’s eyes, I suddenly realized that the face wasn’t ugly at all—just pitifully unformed, its vacuous, innocent eyes surprisingly like those of the fetus floating about at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The American Ornithologists’ Union recently reclassified vultures, taking them out of the order that includes hawks and eagles and putting them not only in the same order but the same suborder as storks. I originally thought it was ironic that the bird symbolizing death was classified with the bird symbolizing birth, but looking into this vulture’s embryonic eyes and smooth facial skin, I suddenly found it oddly fitting.

Anyway, I hope this vulture managed to finish his dinner in peace, and that as he flew off on a full stomach, his world felt a little friendlier and brighter. Of course, I had to exchange his gratitude for my dog’s companionship for the next hour, but after I got home and thoroughly washed my hands, Photon came close again and all was right in this friendly world where strangers smile at and help one another.