When scavenger becomes scavenged

Dec 31, 2016

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Mother Nature does a fantastic job of cleaning up after herself. Humans could learn a trick or ten from the efficient way natural processes clean water, recycle plants into humus, and tidy up dead critters lying on roadways. For each specific job, creatures abound to make sure nothing stinky lies around too long. Two of my favorite helpers include the roadkill eradication team: magpies and turkey vultures. 

Of the two members of this highway crew, magpies are by far the lovelier. In fact, this long tailed, black and white member of the crow family is so pretty dressed in its tuxedo-like attire, it’s hard to believe it survives by devouring mashed messes served on hot asphalt. You’ll spy this unsophisticated diner hanging out along busy roadways. Despite the fancy duds, these guys hop agilely from ground to fence line waiting for rodents to misjudge the amount of time required to cross the road.

As if to reveal nature’s sense of humor, turkey vultures are the total opposite in appearance from their streamlined, high fashion magpie buddies. If ever an appearance matched an occupation, turkey vultures win the prize. Horror movie scriptwriters with all their special effects capabilities couldn’t design a more perfect character than this fellow with its soaring wings; dark colored, gangly body; blood red head; and beak designed to rip and tear. These seasonal occupants arrive in the Great Plains each spring, work overtime to clean up roadkill, and then catch a fall thermal to winter in warmer climates.

Anyone who spends much time cruising open country has seen these birds at work. Depending on the numbers of critters pancaked under swiftly rotating tires, a dozen or more magpies and or vultures may scavenge a site. It seems they would zip out of the way of oncoming traffic a little before they do, but that isn’t true. Both species gorge until the very last moment before dashing to the safety. It’s amazing travelers don’t see more of them turned from diner to dinner.

Luck can’t last forever, and a vulture on Highway 283 south of Hill City didn’t get out the way on time. As I headed toward Wakeeney, I saw seven large carrion eaters enjoying a deer kill. Even though I expected those bomber-shaped bodies to lumber into the air long before I entered their eatery, I slowed down. Thank goodness I did.

All but one of the gourmands cleared the area in plenty of time. That dawdler hung around for a last mouthful. It was just long enough that the glutton couldn’t gain loft enough to get out of my little silver Toyota’s drag. Mr. Vulture and I found ourselves eyeball to eyeball as the vulture sucked toward my windshield.

Neither of us were having a good day. Fortunately, either the design of my car or the bird’s wingspread tugged it high enough that it missed a head on with glass and caught a glancing blow along the metal edge of my roof. While I was thrilled I didn’t need to replace my windshield, I felt bad for this bird trying to fill its belly.

A quick glance in the rearview mirror informed me that it wouldn’t rejoin its buddies cleaning up the highway. I didn’t hang around long enough to learn whether these connoisseurs minded eating one of their own.