They aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing of creatures: they feed on dead animals, and projectile vomiting on their aggressors is their main defense mechanism. But their migration patterns cover most regions of the world, and indigenous communities in India and North America have long looked to them as symbols of rebirth and new life. In her book “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird,” Penn State alumna Katie Fallon weaves narrative with nonfiction to show readers the beauty in what our society usually sees as foul: the turkey vulture.
As “Vulture” moves from chapter to chapter, Fallon follows the migration patterns of the birds across states, countries and continents, painting images of the landscapes the vultures see along their way. There’s something admirable about these patterns: turkey vultures aren’t aimless wanderers but determined travelers, making their movements with grace and tradition from north to south and back again.
But the book doesn’t focus solely on the present activities of these peculiar birds. “Vulture” travels back in time as Fallon uncovers the bird’s symbolic importance to peoples of South and Central America and Egypt. Ancient vulture images appear in each of these places in symbolic forms (for example, as symbols on ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses or characters in folklore). They were revered by these groups as reminders of the circle of life. Fallon also shares her often comedic personal encounters with vultures as she writes about her work at the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.
Fallon’s story isn’t the only one that unfolds as she writes: between chapters, she weaves in the story of a female vulture as she follows her instincts to her solitary nesting ground, waits for her mate and cares for her chicks before returning north. It’s a perfect representation of the turkey vulture’s life cycle. It’s also a story that’s personal and tranquil, natural and eternal. These birds have adapted by changing their migration routes throughout the centuries, yet so much about them has remained exactly the same.
As Fallon moves between these elements of the book, relating her travels to bird shows and local festivals, to sanctuaries and state parks, she can’t help but notice the effects humans have had on the birds. Vultures have been negatively impacted by their interactions with humans: they’ve been caught in traps, run over in traffic and poisoned from feeding on animals shot with lead bullets. Advocating for the abolition of lead bullets in hunting practices, Fallon notes that human traditions, including hunting, tracking and fishing, don’t have to dissolve to protect the traditions of the vultures.
“Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird” is both a journey through time and a call to adventure. The birds themselves are constant reminders that life and death move in an endless circle; perhaps the mixed emotions they bring forth are part of the reason for their negative connotation. But in Fallon’s book every angle of the vulture’s journey is traced and explored, giving readers the opportunity to see beauty even in those creatures that may not immediately appear to possess it.
Reviewer Emily Morrison is the undergraduate intern for the Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State.
As part of Centre County Reads, Penn State alumna Katie Fallon will give a reading on April 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Nittany Lion Inn.