The urge to escape, to get away from our life—at least for a little while—is universal. Reasons, both real and imagined, are varied, but might stem from a troublesome relationship, sickness, financial woes, a job that seems to suck our life away one grinding under-paid hour at a time. Wouldn’t it be a relief, we think, to exchange identities with another person who’s richer, younger, more exciting or interesting—perhaps just skinnier or better looking?
That grass on the other side of the fence does, indeed, regularly look greener!
Apparently such fantasy urges aren’t limited to us humans, either. This morning I watched a turkey vulture gamely trying to pass himself off as a great blue heron.
The great black bird came flapping upriver, flying no more than five or six feet above the surface of the water—which, I can assure you, is most un-buzzard-like. While a vulture may fly upstream, he generally does so in a sweeping glide, riding the air instead of flapping for lift, and at least 30–40 feet above the river’s surface.
Herons, on the other hand, do indeed flap along regularly a yard or two above the water.
The odd-behaving vulture then landed on a midstream rock…and immediately stepped into the water—from which he just as quickly stepped back out, to take up a stance on the rock rather than actually in the water.
Blue herons, of course, wade around all day, and don’t mind in the least negotiating water that’s knee deep on their long, spindly legs. They will stand on a rock (or log, or ice-shelf come winter) to fish if the adjacent water is too swift or too deep. And they’re not much inclined to plod around backwater areas where the bottom is comprised of several inches of mucky silt. But mostly they wade.
The turkey vulture, on the other hand, wanted to do his fishing dry-shod. He had heron aspirations—but only to a point. Getting his feet wet was not part of the plan.
Fishing—or trying to fish—was, however. And the would-be-angler vulture really gave it a pretty good shot. Time after time he leaned close and stabbed into the water—shaking himself afterwards like a dog who has just tried drinking from a hose. Stab, shake…stab, shake…stab, shake.
What he lacked was piscatorial prowess and even a smidgen of luck. Not to mention good balance. Try as he might, he never managed to nail a fish. But the bird did repeatedly slip off the rock and into the water—which prompted as hasty a retreat as it had the first time around.
All the while, as the vulture on the rock fished and floundered, several of his buzzard compatriots watched from perches on nearby limbs. These dour peers seemed genuinely puzzled by their comrade’s antics, and perhaps a bit embarrassed.
I was kind of embarrassed, too, especially when the wannabe heron got so frustrated that he flapped around in a quick circle, landed back on the rock, slipped into the shallows again, climbed back onto the rock, and began stabbing and glaring at the water as if the river gods below the shimmering surface might be playing tricks and keeping him from savoring his rightful breakfast.
Just to keep the record straight here—I do see vultures feeding along the river from time to time. Usually they’ll be investigating a dead fish or some other bit of rotting flesh along the bank, or perhaps caught in a logjam or even a bunch of midstream rocks. So seeing a bird very near the water—even slightly in the water—isn’t itself unusual.
What was unusual was this particular vulture’s repeated attempts to catch whatever it was that was still alive and swimming around in the shallows beside the rock upon which he stood. That there was something there—alive—I have no doubt. The bird made too many lunging, often frantic, stabs into the water for it to be otherwise. Fishing behavior for sure, even if it lacked the least degree of success.
Finally, having either tired of making a fool of himself in front of witnesses, or the temporary heron fantasy having run it course, the vulture decided he’d had enough.
With a quick hop—surprisingly light and graceful—the big bird launched himself into the air and executed several powerful flaps that carried him almost to tree-top height. Then the buzzard sailed downward in a fast, steep dive, swooped over the rock, and shot back up like a roller-coaster going down a steep hill and up another one. A flap or two more and he caught a rising current, cleared the tops of the big sycamores, spiraled around, and kept rising and rising and rising, until he was no more than a dihedral speck against a vast swathe of dazzling blue.
That old buzzard might never make a fisherman…but he could soar like an angel. Sometimes reality beats fantasy.