She is a starkly beautiful creature with a face that inspires Mardi Gras masks and totem poles. Her neck is fringed with feathers, her skin a translucent blue. He approaches her with careful steps, puffing himself up to look larger, trying to get her attention. His head is wider than hers, though his face is just as striking and his exposed skin as blue. He is 38 years old. She is 11.
Theirs is a May-December union, even for cinereous vultures. "Cinereous" means "ash-colored," referring to the soot-brown of their feathers. They live together in a flight cage at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo 24 hours a day in scorching heat and subzero temperatures, for better or for worse, until death or the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Plan does them part.
The plan helps ensure the survival of certain animals by pairing those with the best mating potential. In the wild, cinereous vultures live in pockets across Southern Europe and Asia, stretching from Mongolia to Spain, surviving only where man has not obliterated their habitats or farmers have not inadvertently fed them poisoned carcasses while trying to keep predators from their livestock. He came from out there somewhere. She came from another zoo, an offspring from a match like this one, orchestrated by people to help save her kind from other people.
But even though nearly three decades separate these two vultures, they have a great deal in common, including nearly bald heads designed for carcass feasting, a 7 1/2-foot wingspan and a taste for tendon. They also share the same relationship to death. If you see vultures, death has happened, says Stan Searles, the zoo's curator of ornithology. They do not kill. They clean up what other creatures have killed, taking what is left - organs, eyeballs, bones. They pick clean their surroundings and keep diseases at bay. A healthy vulture population is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, Searles says. Native people knew this, which is why the vulture is so well-represented in their lore. But as people have become distanced from nature, the vulture's reputation has suffered. Instead of a spiritual being, the vulture comes to represent a greedy lawyer or an overzealous cop. We no longer want to be reminded of what we kill or what we waste.
But to dismiss vultures would be a mistake. Just look at them, at the story they tell, one of life from death.
When the male vulture approaches, the female puffs up her plumage.
He makes a quick move, a gentle move, bringing his head to her breast to preen her, then drawing it back. He does this again and again. She acknowledges his advances, though it could be as long as two months before they amount to much in a reproductive sense. She extends her neck and pecks at him. He pecks back. Peck, peck, peck until her white head is turned upside down and his beak is touching hers. A kiss? No, just something that looks like it.
It is late December, and they will not mate until at least February, during the one time each year when it is possible for them to make offspring. But he has started getting her attention early. He wants to do this right.
Someday, she will have another mate. But not him. She is his last chance.
And their pairing, though it started out promising enough, which means they've gotten along uneventfully since they were placed in the same cage back in summer 2003, hasn't produced any chicks.
They've done everything vulture parents do in the wild. They've built good nests of pine boughs and branches. They've mated in the male-dominated, somewhat violent way vultures mate - him balancing on her back and pecking at her with his bone-snapping beak, her trying to get him with her own. They've laid eggs. Two each time. She sat on those eggs through the snow and the wind, keeping them warm as best she could throughout Cleveland's harsh early spring. Whenever she got off the nest to stretch or to drink, he would take a turn warming the eggs - as a good vulture father-to-be should.
She sat for seven or eight weeks. But no eggs hatched. Zookeepers found only pieces of egg in the nest. They are not sure what happened. "Her youth coupled with his nonyouth," is Searles' best guess. It's not uncommon for young, inexperienced females to nest ineffectively. Or maybe the male's not doing something right while they mate. Or maybe it's all the snow
The zookeepers put a wooden platform where the nest was last year, hoping the vultures choose to build a nest there this year. But vultures will do what they want ? they ignored another platform last year and built their nest on the ground.
If no chicks hatch this year, they could artificially inseminate her, Searles says. They could move the eggs somewhere enclosed. But he'd rather not interfere. He'd rather let the birds figure it out themselves.
And they might. Vultures are smarter than eagles, Searles says. Eagle chicks learn all they need to know in three or four months. Vulture chicks have so much to learn that they stay with their parents for six months or more. They problem-solve as well as or better than any bird, determining, for instance, the best time to swoop in on carrion (once the large predators have gone).
At the zoo, the two vultures seem to notice everything ? the squirrels scampering across the fence, the condors in the cage next to them, the man who throws them fish. You can marvel at them. You can watch them watch you. But unless you're dead, you can't get close to them, no matter how much you may want to.
In a rare instance of 20th century affection, Robinson Jeffers, in his poem "Vulture," regrets disappointing the vulture that spied him resting on a hillside: To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes ? What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death."