Overhead, they are a common sight—dark figures cutting across the clear sky, the distinct shallow V-shape of their bodies as they dip low to feed on carrion by the roadside or come to roost in large groups in the branches of a Cottonwood. Turkey Vultures—who make their living as nature's cleanup crew, feeding on the carcasses of dead animals—often get a bad rap in popular culture. Histrionically they are associated with death and uncleanliness, though the service they provide is vital to the health of the far flung and diverse ecosystems in which they are found.
In the home of Larry Rimer, a longtime volunteer of Hawks Aloft, a local nonprofit that deals in conservation of birds of prey, a large female Turkey Vulture is settling into a new life. Her eyes are surprisingly kind, softer than those of say, a Red-tailed Hawk, which she is a bit bigger than, though she shares the same sharp vision. She is inquisitive about her new surroundings. She spreads her broad, dark brown wings, catching a slight breeze before settling on to Rimer's heavy leather glove.
This particular bird—who was given the name Beauty—is settling into her role as an Avian Ambassador at Hawks Aloft and will soon begin participating in educational programs for people across the state and beyond, teaching them about the importance of her species. There are seven species of New World Vultures—of which, the Turkey Vulture is the most common of the three found in North America. They use a sophisticated sense of smell—a rarity in the bird world—to locate carcasses and then use their highly corrosive stomach acids to digest the meat, even from bodies that carried diseases like anthrax, cholera and rabies. Without this service, not only would there be corpses littering the landscape, but diseases would spread more rapidly and widely.
Beauty, however, didn't have much of an opportunity to be such a vital piece of the vast, interconnected biome that she sprang from. All the birds—almost 30 in total—that live with experienced Hawks Aloft staff (full disclosure—I myself am one of those staff) and volunteers are permanently injured, meaning their injuries are such that they cannot be re-released into the wild. Beauty's injury is unique. You can't see it on her body, covered in feathers in shades of gray and brown. Her disability is entirely internal.
Beauty, now approximately 5 years old, is a human imprint. As a nestling she was snatched from her nest near Corona, N.M., southeast of Albuquerque. She was kept by the family that took her, who called her Bonehead. We don't know what the conditions were like where she lived, but we do know that she didn't know that she could fly. Although physically perfect, she never learned this behavior so innate to her species; she is a poor flier today and crash lands into barriers in her aviary. Taking a bird like Beauty from her nest isn't just illegal—it's cruel. She has never had the opportunity to experience life as she was intended to, and is instead relegated to a life apart from others of her species, who are quite sociable. Turkey Vultures, though they scavenge independently, are quite gregarious and spend their nights in large volts.
However, because of her history, Beauty is quite sociable with humans and Rimer—who she bunks with—is adoring of her. Soon, she will head out to classrooms and other events, where Hawks Aloft provides all manner of programming. The group—who has done work such as this since 1994—offers a year-long conservation education program to Title 1 schools called Living with the Landscape, as well as a variety of other modes of bringing this vital information to adults and children alike. By hearing the story of one bird—who is right there in front of you—the message resonates more loudly, and those who listen walk away more empowered to swing things back in favor of nature.
For Beauty a new phase of life has just begun. Though she's still gaining her wings and adjusting, it's a life with greater meaning and that will serve her species well. As her bare, pink head swivels in Rimer's backyard, taking it all in, it is striking how apt her new name actually is.
Follow Beauty's story—and that of many other birds—by connecting with Hawks Aloft on Facebook and Instagram (@hawksaloft) or visit their webpage hawksaloft.org.