Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Wake of Vultures

I'm used to seeing turkey vultures in the air - those spread wings, tips slightly upraised, with that broad light, almost silver, fringe to them - soaring, riding the wind even when it tosses them around. I'm even used to seeing them on the top of tall buildings - stand-ins for cliffs. Where I'm not used to seeing them is in the trees of my home town, right next to houses.

A few days ago my father and I were driving up one of the avenues that runs up the ridge when I spotted a huge but motionless bird, its wings spread, in a tall bare tree between two houses. My first thought was that it was dead - stuffed and stuck in the tree to scare something, squirrels maybe. Then I realized you'd need a tall cherry picker to have gotten it that high up, or a fearless 8 year old, and I wondered if it just died... My father, driving in a fading rain, hadn't noticed it, but he turned the car around and we went back and pulled into the parking lane to take a look. The bird was still there, motionless, but as we pulled in I realized that there were three others lower in the tree. Then the topmost one moved, and two more birds circled in, and we recognized them as buzzards - turkey vultures, more formally.

Several of them were sitting with their wings held out from their bodies. The web sites I went to call it the 'horaltic' pose - I can find no actual definition of 'horaltic' nor etymology, but I'm guessing it comes from Horus, and the depictions of him with widespread wings. A birder suggested a different etymology, and it sounds right to me: a mishear of heraldic. "The stance is believed to serve multiple functions:Chock full o buzzards by Richard Ondrovic drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria." However, it was raining Thursday, so perhaps the pose can also prevent wings from getting too wet? Whatever, it was an astounding sight. This picture is by Richard Ondrovic, taken near Cumberland Gap (see it at Appalchian Gallery) and used with his permission - it's much better than the snaps I got (below), and shows one (on the lowest branch) in the horaltic pose.
vultures on top of tower
And then a couple of days later we saw more. At the top of that ridge, on the drive my father lives on, is a water tower - and there must have been several dozen buzzards perched on it, ringing it around completely and then all over the support struts under the reservoir.

vultures on tower

Amazing. I have never seen so many in one place before. They were soaring in to take up positions on walkway, occasionally jostling each other as they landed, but mostly just sliding into openings and settling down. It's an enormous number of birds, and all so silent.

tower full of vultures
They've been there every evening since then. In the late afternoon you can see them wheeling in from all quarters, soaring high on the winds, banking and gliding in to the tower, huge dark birds with silvery wings, silent and graceful. I suppose their previous roost was bulldozed by a developer and they took to the air, looking for a new place to live. My sister thinks she saw them arrive; sitting out on her deck at the end of vultures on supportsNovember she saw buzzards flying by, one or two every 15 seconds, "like a buzzard highway in the sky." At any rate, they're here now - dozens of them.

white vulture by Anna de Guzman Lewis

- shortly afer I started writing this up, a story appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel about a white vulture living in Oak Ridge - "Ann says the white vulture roosts alone in one tree, while about 60 normally colored vultures roost together in a nearby tree. The normal vultures won't go anywhere near the white vulture, which has appeared at the regular roost site of the normal birds on only a few occasions." Those buzzards are in the west end of town; these (on the tower) further east - about 3 or 3½ miles apart. I suppose they might be the same bunch - spending part of the day here and part there - or they might be different, ranging over different parts of the valley. I haven't seen the white one (this picture was in the paper), but maybe I will soon.

Update 5 Jan: the ones here are spending their nights on the tower, so I don't think they're the same as the ones with the white hanger-on

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At 5:52 PM, January 10, 2007 Blogger John had this to say...

That is one weird-looking bird. At first I thought it was an ibis, but I can see that it is a vulture. I do not think I have ever seen any vultures that are so white.

At 4:52 PM, September 29, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. The misnomer, "horaltic" is simply a lazy, inept, misspelling of the word "heraldic". The heraldic pose is one found in heraldry, which is the study and classification of armorial bearings and the tracing of genealogies.

This "horaltic" nonsense was probably started by one person, too lazy, or to inept to spell the word correctly.

At 5:16 PM, September 29, 2008 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Or possibly just unfamiliar with the word. Why assume ineptness or laziness?

At 1:09 PM, May 05, 2009 Blogger lostinreincarnation had this to say...

I too, was puzzled by the "misnomer" horaltic. I searched and searched and came to the conclusion the writer in the local newspaper had made the word up. However, I did my obligatory Wikipedia search and found a very interesting Heraldic pose of the Egyptian god, Horus, at the following Louvre link:
This is a topic for the world's greatest word sleuths, don't you think? How about Simon Winchester? He could probably do at least a chapter on how he tracked down the naturalist who coined this term, it that's how it happened.

At 9:47 AM, July 24, 2014 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

Another idea: the traditional circle dance, (supposedly from the Greek hora for circle?) looks a lot like the birds pose. Arms up and outstretched...maybe?


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