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Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird (2017)

by Katie Fallon

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
My wife reacted the way most people would when I told her I was reading a book about turkey vultures: Why? Some reasons: turkey vultures--all vultures--are an effective disease control asset for humans, livestock and wild animals; vultures have an undeserved bad reputation; vultures look beautiful in flight; and not much is known about these important and widespread birds. Katie Fallon seems to be in love with turkey vultures, which means sometimes she edges toward mania (an "I heart vultures" onesie for a newborn), but she also knows these birds and knows the scientists and amateurs who study them. This is an engaging and informative book with suggestions for action included. ( )
  nmele | May 22, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This isn't so much a book as it is a loose conglomeration of marginally organized facebook rants. I got it as part of librarything's early review program- if I had just picked it up, I woulda given up during the part where the author, who has no understanding of archeology, tried to justify a theory that human culture wouldn't exist were it not for vultures. As is, I pushed through that, and it DID get slightly better, btu then things would go downhill for long segments.
I picked the book up because I LIKE vultures, and I wanted to learn something about them. I did lear n a few things, but mostly I got scolded for not liking vultures. There's a lot of scolding in here.
There's a long scene in which the author is driving along a road next to a windfarm, and she sets her cruise control so that she can give all her attention to watching raptors not get hit by turbine blades. She describes herself shreiking aloud in her empty car when there are near misses. She does not describe the near misses that no doubt occurred between her car and various woodchucks/squirrels/etc, because she didn't notice those- she was busy watching the vultures. She also doesn't bother mentioning the statistics for how many vultures are hit by cars while dining on roadkill.
That passage stuck in my mind most, but there's a lot of that sort of thing- very focused rants that last far too long and which are clearly responses to -something- but the something wasn't printed in the book.
The strongest parts of the book are when she introducing various scientists and their work- these people are enthusiastic, our author is enthusiastic, and while we are being told about the science, we get to actually learn things about the vultures that this book purports to be about. ( )
  Kesterbird | May 16, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Vultures are fascinating birds who are poorly understood by most of us. Katie Fallon, cofounder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, hopes to rectify that with her book, Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird.

One of the first things a reader learns is something that should be obvious, but isn’t. Vultures are a critical element in the food chain, but in a way, they are also outside it. They are neither predator and are seldom prey. They, by and large, only eat carrion, the remains of already dead animals, so there is no predation in their consumption. They are not natural prey of animals in the wild and are only prey to humans because we are wildly misinformed.

In a grotesque example, the Washington Post published a story headlined “Virginia Vultures Turn Vicious, Dine on Pets, Terrorize Owners.” It included the false anecdote of a vulture carrying off a neighbor’s pet, except it would be impossible for a vulture to carry an animal in its talons. More importantly, they are not interested in live prey. They are sometimes implicated in the deaths of pets and livestock because they clean up the aftermath, which is kind of like blaming the hotel maid for the damage the partiers did the night before.

Vultures are important to human survival as they clean up the dead, preventing the spread of disease. In India and Africa, vulture populations are threatened and with reduced numbers have come increased problems. In Africa, they are deliberately targeted by poachers as vultures reveal the site of mass poaching kills.

Katie Fallon is more than a vulture enthusiast; she is a vulture evangelist and her book, Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird is a work of bird evangelism. In many ways, that makes it an exciting book. It does, however, cause her to come across a bit unbalanced a couple of times. For example, when communities in their fear and ignorance ask the USDA to “do something” about the vultures roosting in town, one of the USDA tactics is to place effigies and dead vulture carcasses. This drives them away without shooting them because they don’t eat their own. Perhaps there is some instinct that suggests dead vulture carcasses indicate a danger. So it works and the townsfolk don’t end up organizing an illegal buzzard shoot.

Vultures roost as an extended family, so she analogizes a vulture coming to see those effigies to a person coming home and seeing an uncle hanging from the porch. Now I will quote her exactly, because this is too problematic to paraphrase, “But killing and hanging carcasses in trees—with the intent to intimidate and disperse certain populations—also has troubling historical complications, especially in the South. It seems, at least to me, that this practice should never be normalized, for any species.” Did she just compare a method to disperse vultures without killing them to lynching? A species protection tactic to terrorism? This is an anthropomorphic stretch and it’s an analogy that should never have been made. The list of things that can be compared to lynching is short and contains one item: lynching.

One of my favorite parts of the book were the short interstitial narratives that describe the life of a female vulture over the course of a year. They are poetic, but restrained for the most part to description. There is no projection of human emotion onto the vulture, just a narrative of what she sees and does. I was fascinated by the information about the vultures. I mean, wow! a vulture flew at 37,000 feet! It’s sad we know this because it was sucked into an engine, but that’s amazing.

Turkey buzzards, her favorite vulture, are particularly interesting because their population is thriving despite the challenges human activity throw in their way. This is in sharp contrast to vultures in other parts of the world. This is also in spite of the grotesque insistence on lead ammunition by hunters as it kills wildlife who consume the remains of dressed deer and other game. Hunters would be a boon to vultures if they only changed their ammunition. In a disgraceful example of seeking the bottom rung of humanity, the Trump Administration has repealed the ban on lead ammunition. This means more birds and other animals dying of lead poisoning.

Fallon does not just present the problems. Her finally chapter gives a list of actions people who care about birds and who care about vultures can take to make a difference. This makes her an evangelist, but that is what birds need.

I was provided a copy of Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird for review by the publisher through a drawing at LibraryThing.

★★★
http://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/9781611689716/ ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | May 15, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Great minds work in the same channel. Author Katie Fallon particularly loves turkey vultures, and those are my favorite vultures too. I don't necessarily agree with her that they're "beautiful" birds, but maybe that's because I've only seen injured "spokesbirds" up close and haven't watched these birds, with their wide wingspans, soaring. Well, anyway, as I say, I don't think they're "beautiful," I think they're cute! The way their heads bobble makes me want to hug them and give them a great big kiss.

Of course, I wouldn't dare hug a vulture. Startle the poor l'il guy and he'll regurgitate. And considering what his last meal was, you'd rather get sprayed by a skunk.

This University Press of New England (UPNE) book contains about as much in the way of photographs as you can reasonably expect from a university press, with its often limited budget, but you do get a decent number of black-and-white plates. Unfortunately, you don't get the full color of the birds, especially the red heads of the turkey vultures, but that's unavoidable.

As a member of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (just a couple hours drive from my home in Delaware County, PA, just west of Philadelphia), I was particularly interested in her discussion of Hawk Mountain and its Director of Conservation Science, Keith Bildstein, whose presentation on raptors I've attended.

Personally, I'm not that much interested in bird-watching, my main interest being in photography, and wildlife photography with its needed telephoto lens is pricier than I want to spend. Consequently, I spend most of my time at Hawk Mountain hiking its trails and taking landscape photos.

Something I really appreciated about Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird was its description of various vulture venues, including West Virginia's Coopers Rock State Forest and Meadowcroft Rockshelter in western Pennsylvania's Washington County, just a bit away from Pittsburgh, a couple state parks I'd never heard of. And I'd never thought of Gettysburg National Park as a venue for vultures! These are places to explore since I haven't the money every summer for photo safaris to Maine.

For those of you from outside the mid-Atlantic area, Fallon also describes vultures venues in the western U.S.

Vultures are nature's vacuum cleaners. Lose the vultures and their place in the food chain as carrion-eaters can be taken up by wild dogs, with the increased risk of rabies (which has actually happened in India). Vultures also have a symbiotic relationship with hunters – vultures need the carrion that hunters leave from field dressing deer, but they can also be poisoned by the lead pellets scattered through the carrion, so a switch to steel or copper bullets would be most desirable.

I personally would have preferred a bit more "scientific" a writing style as opposed to Fallon's informality, but her informality will overall be more appealing to most readers and she does include a fairly extensive bibliography for further reading. ( )
  CurrerBell | May 14, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Prior to reading "Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird", I was kind of creeped out by vultures. I admired them soaring in the sky but upclose on the ground I shivered. After reading Katie Fallon's life history of the vulture I look forward to seeing them with so much more understanding and appreciation. Fallon describes different species of vultures and their adaptation to diverse habitats. Her writing style is captivating snd understandable, even endearing. I highly recommend this book to all readers interested in natural history. ( )
  SandraCMeyer | May 13, 2017 |
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