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Real Florida: Vulture culture

New College student Amelia Bird has gotten inside the buzzards' circle. She watches them, writes about them and has even dressed as one to dance at a bar - for research purposes only, of course.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published April 23, 2004

wings
[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
While doing Internet research on vultures, Amelia Bird stumbled across a beauty contest-dance contest where contestants do the “buzzard lope.” These are the wings from her costume.

sky
Amelia Bird, 21, watches a vulture fly over Upper Myakka Lake at Myakka River State Park recently. The large — some would say disgusting — birds fascinate the New College student, who is writing her thesis on them.
vulture
A vulture rests on the dam between Myakka River and Upper Myakka Lake. The bald birds prefer eating prey that has been dead a day or so because they have weak legs and talons, and fresh meat is harder to tear.
Bird 
“Vultures have
pretty bad
reputations.
They have
that stigma,
associated with
death, and with
eating dead things.
That makes
them interesting.”
— Amelia Bird

Stan Gober performs The Buzzard Lope.
You will need the free Flash player to hear this audio.

SARASOTA - The perfectly named Amelia Bird was watching the sky. A turkey vulture flew over, then a black vulture, then another turkey vulture. She pronounced herself happy. Amelia Bird is Florida's vulture lady, though she is only 21.

The vultures flew over the oaks and the cabbage palms at Myakka River State Park. At dusk they settle into the treetops for the night. When this happens, you don't want to be waiting under the trees. Vultures eat a lot of dead stuff, and when they let loose, look out below.

Amelia Bird has never been pooped on by a vulture. But there are things worse than being pooped on by vultures, and those things have happened to her. In a strange way, she was thrilled.

"When a vulture throws up on you," she said, "it's love."

Bird is a senior at New College in Sarasota, where she has spent the last year preparing an anthology that will serve as her graduation thesis. Punctuating the Florida Sky: An Anthology of Writing About Vultures collects scientific and popular writing about vultures. It also includes her own observations and essays. The thesis even has a photograph of the bird named Amelia on the day she metamorphosed into a vulture.

In the photo she is dressed entirely in black, in a garter belt, fishnet stockings, feather boa and, of course, her spike heels. Later we will talk more about her secret, decadent life as the "Buzzard Lope Queen."

The watcher in the woods

"There's one," she said.

It was a turkey vulture, Florida's most common, the one most of us see soaring above highways, forests and even cities. They're large birds, with about a 6-foot wingspan, and can weigh 5 pounds. They're black, except for the bottom of their wings, which are a whitish gray. They have featherless red heads.

Black vultures are somewhat smaller and darker, except for their wingtips, which are white. Both birds like eating carrion, though black vultures will devour live prey, too. Cattle ranchers especially dislike their habit of supping on just-born calves.

"Vultures have pretty bad reputations," Bird said, watching them near Upper Myakka Lake on a warm spring day. "They have that stigma, associated with death, and with eating dead things. That makes them interesting."

Bird has never met a vulture - sometimes they are called buzzards - she didn't like. She was fond of even the one that upchucked on her arm. Vultures, she had read in scientific literature, vomit in self-defense. Since they most likely have decaying meat in their bellies, being on the receiving end most likely is an unpleasant experience.

Reading about the habits of vultures is one thing. Empirical experience is another. At the time, she was a volunteer at Sarasota's Pelican Man Sanctuary. Her job was cleaning cages, feeding birds and performing other tasks. Her boss needed her to move a vulture. She tried to secure the vulture's wings with a sheet. It did what vultures naturally do when alarmed.

"Vultures and eagles have this odd relationship," was how she began the story. "You'll often see them flying together. But the eagle is in charge. Sometimes an eagle will dive-bomb or threaten the vulture in some way. Of course, the vulture throws up. It's the vulture saying, "Don't eat me. Here's something else you can eat.' When that vulture threw up on me, it was making me an offering."

She grew up in Keystone Heights, north of Gainesville, where the skies are taken over fall through spring by migrating vultures. When she was a girl, her dad always pointed them out as important birds in Florida's ecology. Like ants, roaches, beetles and rats, they were part of the cleanup crew that came with the landscape.

She graduated from high school with honors and won a full scholarship to New College, which has the highest academic standards of any public university in the state. At first she wanted to study literature but changed her major to environmental studies for reasons that included the possibility of field work at Myakka.

Myakka River State Park, at 38,000 acres, boasts perhaps the largest population of vultures in west-central Florida. When wheels on nearby roads crush armadillos, possums, alligators and gopher tortoises, when bumpers meet the feathers or flesh of screech owls, leopard frogs, whitetail deer, rattlesnakes, bobcats, raccoons, gray foxes and skunks, vultures take advantage.

So, of course, does the watcher in the woods, Amelia Bird.

A wonder of nature

"There's no place in Florida that doesn't have vultures," she said. That is their appeal to her. They represent real Florida more than the beloved flamingo, a bird that doesn't even reproduce in the wild here. Yet rarely will you find a stuffed vulture toy in a gift shop.

In America, vultures are right up there with wolves, snakes, spiders and bats in terms of popularity. But other cultures, at other times, have seen the vulture with different eyes. In at least some versions of Exodus, God advises Moses to remind the sinful children of Israel that "I bore you upon wings of vultures and brought you unto me." In ancient Egypt, the goddess Nekhbet, the mother of all things, often is depicted with a vulture's head. To some American Indians, the vulture represents a cleansing spirit.

Vultures in North America are not an endangered species. In fact, some scientists believe their numbers are increasing. The reason is that the number of humans is on the rise, too. Humans produce garbage, and garbage produces vultures. Humans drive motor vehicles, which produce roadkill. Vultures eat roadkill. It isn't rocket science.

Vultures start looking for chow a few hours after dawn. They fly away from their roosts and ride thermals higher and higher until they can circle without flapping their wings. Turkey vultures especially have an incredible sense of smell. They prefer something dead only a day or two, though they will eat rotten meat, too. Black vultures don't smell as ably as turkey vultures, but their eyesight is good, and they often follow a turkey vulture to something dead and tasty.

Vultures have weak legs and talons, which means they find it difficult to tear the still-tough flesh of something moments dead. Something decayed goes down easier. Having a featherless head is also an advantage. A vulture can stick its whole head into a carcass - no fuss, no muss. The stomach of a vulture is a wonder, able to digest anything. Vultures can eat the most disgusting things on earth and not get sick. Stomach acids kill even deadly viruses. Afterward, a vulture will urinate on its own legs. The urine, in addition to keeping the vulture cool, serves as a disinfectant.

The vulture in literature

William Bartram wrote about vultures in 1791. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote about them in 1937. Weighing in a decade later was Marjory Stoneman Douglas. In Carl Hiaasen's comic crime novels, villains often become supper for hungry vultures.

Poets love to write about vultures, too. Usually, they are a metaphor for something dark and foreboding, though not always. Amelia Bird likes to read poetry, but she also writes it. Her 225-page anthology is sprinkled with bits of her own. When her friend Kit Reilly drowned last year in Puerto Rico, she wrote about the memorial service, attended by all of his friends and, ironically, a flock of vultures that flew over the cemetery.

Not the most

appropriate for funerals, these birds.

The vultures were merely hungry, scanning

the suburbs, then circling in for something else.

They became the scenery for how I dealt

with his death. They were solid.

Amelia Bird, though barely in her 20s, seems older than her years, probably because of her poise and her interest in ornithology and Florida culture. Even so, she likes to party with her friends, listen to loud music and dance. She likes to jog, hike and swim. Recently she acquired a trampoline. She coaches freshman volleyball at Sarasota's Riverview High School. She can spike a volleyball something fierce. More of a stork than a vulture, she is 6 feet tall in her bare feet.

Sometime soon she will have to discuss her vulture anthology before a flock of New College academics. If they like her paper, she will graduate on May 21. After that, she is not sure what will happen. She is still a kid, so she may just hang out at the beach for a spell.

Eventually she wants to work in the wildlife field. "Florida needs me," she said. "But I need to get away from Florida for a while before I come back." She wouldn't mind heading out west, maybe to Utah or Montana. Who knows? California still has a few condors - a vulture relative - flying around.

Perhaps she can write vulture poetry for the New Yorker magazine. Or vulture essays for Orion. In a pinch, she could go to Vegas and get a job as a showgirl. She has the long legs for it and isn't bashful about showing them. Her curriculum vitae, after all, includes the following entry:

January 2004. Crowned Buzzard Lope Queen.

Taking a turn at the bar

During her research, when she was typing "vulture" into the Internet browser Google, all kinds of weird stuff popped up. She learned about the annual mullet festival down in Goodland, a town near Marco Island on the edge of the Ten Thousand Islands, and its buzzard lope contest.

She drove down to investigate. At the bar called Stan's Idle Hour she found out more. For two decades Stan has sponsored a beauty contest/dance contest featuring women who don't mind shaking their tail feathers while wearing vulture costumes. Patrons at the bar that night encouraged her participation.

"My tie-up-the-back dress made many male friends that evening," she wrote into her journal. "Some were old and from Wisconsin and had wives who were not present."

She decided to enter the contest.

She spent two solid days on her costume. She practiced a buzzard dance.

On the day of the contest, she arrived early and squeezed into her costume. Stan's Idle Hour was packed with hooting customers. Some of them hooted at Amelia Bird. She is a feminist who doesn't habitually shave her legs or her armpits, but she was willing to put up with wolf whistles in the name of vulture scholarship.

Amelia Bird spread her 12-foot wings and did her version of the funky chicken, while in the background the music tinkled and throbbed. The song, written and performed by Jimmy Buffett wannabe Stan Gober himself, was called The Buzzard Lope.

Flap your wings up and down

take two steps back, turn round and round.

Looks like you're on dope.

You're just doing the Buzzard Lope.

She did the Buzzard Lope to beat the band.

The crowd roared and clapped and declared her queen. She won $100 and a trophy she keeps on her windowsill. Her queenly responsibilities will require her to come back next January to hand her tiara to the next winner.

On the day of her triumph, somebody handed her a rose, which she clenched between her teeth. Another contestant who had shown a lot of skin and driven a long way to display it, pouted in a corner. Amelia Bird was not sympathetic to a pouting runnerup old buzzard.

"I guess it was a long drive from New Jersey," Bird wrote dismissively, "or maybe her butt had never failed her before."

To hear a bit of Stan Gober's "Buzzard Lope," go to www.sptimes.com

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 23, 2004, 08:31:30]


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