Scavengers in general have a tough enough job commanding respect from mankind, but looking like the grim reaper and dining on the dead has done little to promote an unbiased understanding of vultures. The reputation of these magnificent raptors has long been haunted by a queasy combination of disgust and mistrust. The grandiose naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was especially bombastic when it came to describing the vulture. “They are voracious, cowardly, disgusting, odious and, as with wolves, just as noxious during their lives as they are useless after their death,” he said, throwing his thesaurus at the vulture in a frenzy of unflattering adjectives.
Our uneasy relationship with death, with which these birds seem to be so at one, rubbed off on their hunched shoulders. Early Christian taboos against touching corpses put vultures in a singular category of grotesquery. The Old Testament stigmatized them as unclean, “an abomination among the birds.” They were seen as otherworldly creatures in possession of mystical powers. “Vultures are accustomed to foretell the death of men by certain signs,” one twelfth-century bestiary warned. “Whenever two lines of battle are drawn against each other in lamentable war… the birds follow in a long column [and] show by the length of this column how many soldiers are to die in the struggle.” These clairvoyant powers were, according to the chronicler, self-serving: “They show in fact how many men are destined to be the booty of the vultures themselves.”
Vultures are unsentimental about what—or who—they eat. Medieval European battlegrounds, dotted with dozens of felled humans and horses, would have been the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Battles often waged for weeks, frequently during the summer months—conveniently coinciding with the vultures’ nesting season on the continent. Birds must have set up camp in Hitchcockian numbers, dispassionately picking over the dead to feed themselves and their chicks. An observer some distance away might thus be able to predict something about conditions on the battlefield by counting the vultures circling above.
Despite popular mythology, however, vultures do not stalk their prey while it’s still living, and they are not able to predict mortality.
How vultures know where to congregate is indeed mysterious. Their eerie ability to arrive apparently out of nowhere, and in great numbers, at the scene of death has engendered a longstanding belief that their senses must be of supernatural strength. But precisely which senses are being used has been the subject of one of the longest and bitterest arguments in ornithology.
The defining feature of the vulture’s dinner is that it stinks to high heaven. So it was long held that this bird’s sense of smell must be the source of its mystical power of tracking down the dead. As the Franciscan monk Bartholomew the Englishman wrote in his influential thirteenth-century bestiary, “In this bird the wit of smelling is best. And therefore by smelling he savoureth carrions that be far from him, that is beyond the sea, and ayenward.”
The scavenger’s admirable olfactory ability was widely accepted and reported in later natural history books. Oliver Goldsmith, for example, grudgingly conceded in his History of the Earth that although the vulture’s nature may be “cruel, unclean and indolent,” their “sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.” He qualified this alleged talent with physiological evidence: “Nature, for this purpose, has given them two large apertures or nostrils without, and an extensive olfactory membrane within.”
Just a decade later, the vulture was spectacularly robbed of its sense of smell by an ambitious American naturalist named John James Audubon. Today, Audubon is one of the most recognized names in ornithology, famous for his exquisite lifelike drawings of birds. But back in the 1820s, he was a wandering go-getter, hawking his paintings around Europe and hungry for a bit of fame. He got what he wanted by courting controversy at a gathering of the hallowed Edinburgh Natural History Society in 1826.
The rambling yet provocative title of his subsequent paper betrays Audubon’s desire to make a big splash with the stuffy Victorian natural history crowd: “An Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard (Cathartes aura) Particularly with a View to Exploding the Opinion Generally Entertained of Its Extraordinary Power of Smelling.”
In his audacious paper, Audubon explained how, as a child growing up in France in the late 1700s, he had been taught that vultures scavenged using their sense of smell. This didn’t make any sense to the budding ornithologist, who labored under the spartan belief that “nature, although wonderfully bountiful, had not granted more to one individual than was necessary and that no one was possessed of any two of the senses in any a very high state of perfection; that if it had a good scent, it need not the acuteness of sight.” Years later, while living in America, Audubon had begun testing his theory by casually creeping up on wild turkey buzzards (also commonly known as turkey vultures), but they seemed only to be spooked by his sudden appearance, not his body odor. He decided to take the matter further and “assiduously engaged in a series of experiments to prove, to myself at least, how far this acuteness of smell existed, or if it existed at all.”
Audubon’s grand experiments basically amounted to a very smelly game of hide-and-seek involving some dead animals and a committee of wild vultures. First, he roughly stuffed a deer skin with straw and left it in a meadow with its feet in the air. His taxidermy skills were not the finest, but the misshapen beast still quickly attracted a vulture, which launched a futile attack on the dummy’s clay eyes, then “voided itself freely” and unpicked some stitches from the dead deer’s rear end, releasing “much fodder and hay.” The disillusioned bird then flew off and killed a small garter snake as comestible compensation, thereby proving to Audubon’s satisfaction that the bird had used vision to hunt.