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Funeral for a Turkey Vulture

“Dear God, take good care of Beaky. He was our friend,” Grandson Bob intoned in his best preacher’s voice.

Heads bowed, the grandsons were gathered in a solemn circle on the bricks of our driveway. Laid on its back inside this circle of mourning boys was a huge black bird, its great wings folded at its sides. Candles burned on either side of the hideous bald, red-skinned head. Its chicken-like feet stuck straight up in the air. Propped up behind its head was a wooden board for a grave marker.

Beaky, our family turkey vulture, was dead, quite dead, as dead as the hundreds (thousands?) of animal carcasses he had consumed during a long and distinguished career as a scavenger.

“Grandpa, how do you know this is Beaky?” Lamppost Head whispered. He asked respectfully, not to challenge his grandfather, but to understand how I could tell that this particular dead vulture was the same one we have seen circling over our farm for a number of years.

“I don’t know for sure, son, but it’s likely he is. Vultures are territorial creatures and he was dead on our road. That’s why I say it’s Beaky.”

IT WAS GENERAL DOC, my brother-in-law, who named Beaky.

Doc runs his hunting dogs on the farm every day. He is a keen observer of nature, often reporting on how many young the turkeys are raising, or which hawks are hunting, or the status of the deer and rabbit populations.

Turkey vultures are different from those other wild creatures in that they are relatively unafraid of humans, and that they attach themselves to a particular place, returning there each year in their migration cycle. Hinckley, Ohio, for instance, celebrates the return of hundreds of “buzzards” every spring.

It had never occurred to me to recognize a vulture as ours and give it a name, but the rightness of it was immediately apparent. Soon everyone in the family knew we had a buzzard and his name was Beaky. We all watched for him, taking pride in having a vulture of our own.

When any of us would see a turkey vulture soaring grandly overhead, we would call out, “Hi, Beaky!” When I killed a groundhog or raccoon, I threw the carcass down in the field. “I put a meal out for Beaky today,” I’d tell Honey. When later we would see four or five vultures flying in or gathered around the dead thing, we would say, “Beaky is having friends over for dinner.”

I have gone so far as to drag roadkill deer well off Gas Valley Road to make it safer for Beaky and his friends. Just the other day I took a dead possum off the road and put it in a certain spot down below the barn. General Doc has often done the same sort of thing. We believe Beaky understood that dead animals he found there were left by his friends, and that it was a safe place to eat.

TURKEY VULTURES are protected under law by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. In the several nations signing onto this treaty, it is illegal to shoot, trap, pursue or possess almost any wild bird with the notable exceptions of game birds (in season) and non-native pests such as starlings and house sparrows. It is a violation of federal law to possess a dead bird, its feathers or bones or even its nests. It is a very good law.

When I found Beaky dead on the road – probably hit by a car as he was feeding on roadkill – I knew that under federal law I could not move him without risking felony charges. Imagine my surprise later when I found Beaky’s body on our driveway.

Since it was there, however, it occurred to me that a funeral would be appropriate. There’s no law against merely looking at a bird, though most birdwatchers are in the habit of looking at live ones. I knew our family members, especially the grandsons, would appreciate the chance to view Beaky, mourn his passing and celebrate his life.

As the candles flickered alongside the dearly departed, each boy offered a few heartfelt words. Lamppost Head and The 747 were there, along with Bob and Rufus. The Favorite placed a bouquet of dandelions by the dead vulture’s head.

“We love you, Beaky,” he sniffed.

After the service someone must have moved the body again because the next thing I recall seeing (all this happened two long years ago) was freshly dug earth and Beaky’s grave marker.

A simple epitaph read: “In loving memory of ‘Beaky’ 2015-2018.”

Rufus had made the marker, nailing a stake to a scrap of board, but it was Bob who scratched the inscription on it.

“How did you know Beaky’s dates of birth and death?” I asked Bob.

“The same way you knew it was Beaky,” he replied.

Life goes on today at the Miller farm. So does death, but when it does, our new (we think) family turkey vulture swoops down to tidy up.

“Hi, Beaky Jr.!” we call out, waving to the magnificent black bird soaring in circles far, far above our heads.

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