How to Succeed in the Species Business without Really Trying
“Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly, there is nothing left but quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it.” --George Orwell
In the hottest part of July, when air conditioners run non-stop, when the coal-fired power plant in my Nebraska town belches black, a turkey buzzard couple circles the plant’s smokestack, their penthouse suite. I watch them from my porch with binoculars. Their wings blur in the charred haze like gravestone rubbings. No one in town ever wonders aloud about the pair’s spring fledglings; no one suggests installing nanny cams or offers to life-flight the tykes from their hostile hostel. We’re all curious, of course, but somehow we don’t really care about the buzzards’ plight. I suspect it’s because buzzards are ugly. Ugly and plentiful: two traits we humans don’t much admire.
The uncomely turkey buzzard--order Falconiformes, common as dirt from Canada to Tierra del Fuego--is an unlikely occupier of Doric frieze or garage freezer. Other than Norman Bates, who would want a buzzard head mounted to their great room wall? What nation would stamp its homely profile on a coin? Not an easy task--sexing up a vulture’s face.
Sometimes, though, even ugly has its champions. Think of Poe. His name alone sets our hearts to pound, throats to constrict. His moldered settings and snakebit souls animate our fears. With nightmare wingspans and bantam masks, turkey buzzards would seem a natural fit for Poe’s realm; perfect denizens of our Jungian underworld. But when closely observed, our problem with the birds becomes apparent: they behave like carnival clowns, like luchadore showboats. They teeter and squawk, zing one another Honeymooner-style. When challenged, even slightly, by larger birds of prey, the cowards vomit on their opponents or ghee their pantalettes in fear. They get the drop on their enemies by sneak attack of gastric juices; by grossing them out. Not exactly hero material. We laugh, shrug it off, but secretly we’re ashamed of them--of their lack of self-control.
How, then, have turkey buzzards managed to flourish as a species? What’s the secret to their uncanny evolutionary success? Smoke and mirrors, I think. By appearing to be the other guys. By cosmic or comedic twist, turkey buzzards are often mistaken for nature’s true predators, those raptors of literary and royal renown--eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. They ride the real hunters’ coattails, fool prey from a distance. Mice, rabbits, coyotes all run for their lives when they see the buzzard’s shadow.
Turkey buzzards also triumph by being Falstaffian Sturmtruppen: soldiers who rage into battle after every last wisp of cannon smoke has cleared. They’re driven by economy of effort; allow others to do their killing for them, swoop in once the deed’s been done to retrieve their carrion. Equipped with a rare sense of smell for birds, and with plenty of leisure time on their hands, turkey buzzards have developed effete tastes through the eons, become finicky connoisseurs of flesh tartare. The gourmands would rather starve to death than eat day-old squirrel or putrefied skunk.
Thus have turkey buzzards managed to survive. While many species face reduced habitats and reproductive collapse, buzzards buck the trend of diminishment by feeding off the work of others. They’re epic wannabes, politicians willing to exploit any ideology, picnic on fanatics of any stripe, in order to absorb the spotlight for five minutes more.
We humans who watch buzzards from afar are too repulsed by their looks and scavenging habits to take them seriously. We turn a blind eye to the way they case our joints, to the fussy slippers they envision for our crown-roast ribs. When the time comes, and it surely will, I wonder which of our body parts they’ll sup on first, which organ they’ll deem a delicacy. Our tongues, perhaps. Or plump toes. Our livers would be the classic choice. Pâté never goes out of style.
About the author:
Maureen Kingston is an assistant editor at The Centrifugal Eye. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in B O D Y, The Frank Martin Review, Gargoyle, IthacaLit, So to Speak, Stone Highway Review, Terrain.org, and Verse Wisconsin. A few of her prose pieces have also been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart awards.