June 17, 2008

Bird Lessons

One of the things Esperando and I have always enjoyed in a sort of amateurish way is identifying the birds in the various countries where we have lived. We had a bit of discussion about spending $175 (choke) on a book exclusive to the birds of Baja (costly because it is out of print). At the urging of another bird focused colleague, we decided to bite the bullet and go for it. The book arrived a few days ago and never have I felt more cheated--lots of descriptions but not a single photo or drawing to identify anything.

I have been reviewing some of the bird photos we took on our last trip, and I keep coming to the picture of this big black guy who is famous in cartoons and images of the bleak Mexican desert. He has nothing to recommend him. He smells bad since he is fond of eating roadkill and other dead meat. But, he looks so great perched on the top of a cactus that it almost takes your breath away, especially when that image is something that is so typical of Mexico, yet when you see it you can't believe its real.

We know him in the US as the Turkey Vulture or buzzard, but in Mexico he is called a zopilote or buitre. He ranges from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. With a wingspan of 68–72 inches, the buzzard has dark brown to black plumage; a featherless, purplish-red head and neck; and a short, hooked, ivory-colored beak. It finds its meals using its sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. Lacking a syrinx—the vocal organ of birds—its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses. In the US the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Now watch out for the hissing! Don't you feel smarter?

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