Monday, March 9, 2009

Close Encounter of a Vulturish Kind

When you walk along Biscayne Bay in Miami, you never know what you might see. Maybe a manatee will raise its gentle face above the surface and take a deep snorting breath. Or a bevy of blue-bubbled Portuguese Men o' War might float beguilingly across the water, deadly tentacles dangling below. Perhaps a dolphin will surprise you with a series of graceful leaps across the bay. Or you could catch sight of a sting ray undulating along the clear water's bottom in search of prey.

Sometimes the sights on the bay aren't part of the local ecosystem—a psychedelic-green tennis ball bobbing along like a bad imitation of a coconut, or a thousand flecks of white foam packing "peanuts" scattered across the water by the wind. But the the most disturbing things I've seen on Biscayne Bay are the blue bundles that sometimes wash up against the rocks next to the sea wall where I like to walk. These are the remains of Santeria sacrifices.

Santeria is a Caribbean religion that combines elements of Yoruba, Roman Catholic, and Native American beliefs. It has devotees among Cubans-Americans in Miami. Animal sacrifice is part of Santeria practice and the local rituals take place at a restaurant that overlooks the Miami River. Once the sacrifice has occurred, the slain animal is wrapped in one of the restaurant's cobalt blue tablecloths. The knotted tablecloth creates a bulky bundle, much like a hobo might carry. The bundle is dumped into the river. From there, the currents carry it out to the bay. Eventually, at low tide, it winds up on the rocks beside the seawall.

When I see one of these blue sacks, I try not to dwell on the poor creature inside and how it met its demise. I just hope the tide will rise quickly and carry it out to sea to a watery grave. On a recent walk, though, I experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of the circle of life. As I made my way along the bay, I saw something black and hulking on the rocks. I came closer and realized I was staring into the beady eyes of a black vulture, one of four sitting on the rocks, with sooty black bodies and wrinkled gray heads. Two of the four birds flew off as soon as they saw me approach. The other two held their ground. It was then that I noticed the blue tablecloth on the rocks in between them. It had been ripped open by their short, hooked beaks and I could see a few feathers poking out of the bundle.

I've rarely viewed a vulture on the ground. Turkey vultures and, less frequently, black vultures constantly soar high in the skies over Miami, gliding on the wind currents, searching for carrion. But I'd never seen one so close up. It looked enormous, threatening . . . vulturish. Rather than approach any closer, I decided the better choice would be to continue my walk, which would involve circling back to that spot a couple more times.

On my second pass, the two birds were at work on the carcass and didn't even pause to stare me down. They must have concluded I was harmless. By my third time around, about a half hour later, the chicken carcass had been stripped bare and the birds had departed.

Gory though the scene appeared, I saw a certain beauty in it. The poor chicken hadn't been sacrified in vain. Certainly, the Santeria adherents didn't think so. But more importantly, the unfortunate chicken had provided a meal for the hungry vultures. I don't think much of the vultures' appearance or their table manners, but surely they serve an important role in the ecosystem, cleaning up the messes that other creatures make. We humans make the biggest messes of all. Too bad most of them aren't amenable to a quick, devouring, vulturish cleanup.

Photos by Mdf, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Yes, i know what you mean. although I hate it when one of our chickens is a local fox's meal, somehow I'd rather think she was enjoyed and contributed to that old 'circle of life'. Interesting insights into your local culture. I was put in mind of the great Pacific rubbish dump in the earlier section of your post.

  2. Beautiful, Barbara! I was surprised and delighted at where you ended up with this post - really great work!

  3. Barbara, What an interesting blog... I had never heard of the ritual before. I was at first repulsed, then fascinated! Your ending was perfect. All of your descriptions so visual, from the good to the bad!