August 9, 2012
Crested Caracara juvenile on road killed Javelina
Crested Caracara juvenile on road killed Javelina
No matter your political persuasion, if you’re a birder and have even a passing interest in the way language evolves, you had to give props last spring to whoever first thought to change just two letters of a well known term and come up with the conceit of “vulture capitalism.”  Birders know avian vultures and their marvelous evolutionary traits which allow them to survive on carrion, featherless heads and urohydrosis being the two external ones.  “Vulture” as an adjective, though, has been around for some time and my favorite secondary dictionary definition for the noun is this one:  “a person of rapacious, predatory, or profiteering nature.”

My workplace is in the shadow of Camelback Mountain and it’s not uncommon there, especially in warm weather months, to spot Turkey Vultures riding the thermals created by this Valley landmark.  Almost as often, however, we see another kind of vulture up over Camelback, and it all came flooding back to me again when the father of one of the Aurora shooting victims was quoted saying the media in Colorado have been “like vultures.  The media makes this guy notorious.  How much of this blood is on us?”  Probably more than we like to admit, morbid curiosity being one of the downsides of human nature.

The finest quality of the man for whom I’ve worked for thirty years there in the shadow of Camelback Mountain is that, with one notable exception, I’ve never heard him utter a bad word about anyone.  That exception he reserves for the news helicopters which appear, like vultures, over the mountaintop every time a careless hiker requires search and rescue.  This happens at least once a month, often more, and I will never forget the shock, years ago, when I first saw him curl his lip, verbalize his disdain for the news media, and call them, yes, “vultures.”

Our fascination with the avian vultures, all four North American species of which can be seen in Arizona (Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, California Condor, and Crested Caracara) borders on the morbid.  How do they do what they do? And why?  The answer of course is because they can.  They have evolved to fill a requisite natural niche--nature’s undertakers if you will.  Originally grouped by ornithologists in the family with predators, the hawks, recent DNA studies suggest vultures may be misplaced there.  Nonetheless, there is that word again, “predators.”

Last time I checked, most news media were for profit.  And unless you’re living off grid under a rock in the rain forest along the Amazon, the media are us.  Is it part of our DNA to need to know everything about victims and perpetrators?  Will that knowledge keep one less hiker from slipping off a cliff on Camelback?  Will that knowledge ever lead to an understanding of why one disturbed human goes on a rampage and thousands of others don’t?  Highly doubtful.  Like vultures and “vulture,” “need to know” has evolved.  Have we?