Monday, 28 December 2009

Nature's Dustmen

Nature may be "red in tooth and claw", but it makes an awful lot of mess. Animals defaecate throughout their lives and then drop dead, plants litter the landscape with fallen leaves and great piles of dead wood. Fortunately, there are many animals, plants and fungi who specialise in the unenviable task of clearing all this up. Ants swarm everywhere and it is estimated that they form up to 20% of all animal biomass on land. The humble dung beetles are found on all the continents of the world except Antarctica, deriving all their nutrients and water from dung alone. They, at least, are recognised for the valuable public servants they are, and have been introduced into pasture land in Australia, South Africa and Europe to improve soil quality, and remove the habitat of various harmful flies who live in the dung.
But sometimes, more heavyweight refuse collectors are required.

Bird of the day

The Black Vulture

When I first came to Brazil I was surprised by widespread these birds were, soaring over the city of Belo Horizonte, or perched on street lights by the motorway in Vittoria. Throughout the states of Espirito Santo, Rio, Sao Paulo and Minas the only place I haven't seen them is the centre of Sao Paulo. They are conspicuous birds, with a 5ft wingspan and with a lazy overwatch flight, easy to see. Their close proximity to man is not, course, just chance. Just as kites infested medieval London, modern cities are a buffet for the vulture. Better yet, a buffet where the food is considerately laid out in an open air picnic, or dump. The hilly nature of the Mata Atlantica, with numerous rocky outcrops, suits the Black Vulture well, providing nesting and launching sites, but the natural forest does stifle them rather -their superb vision cannot penetrate the canopy. Some other species, such as the Turkey Vulture, cruise above the tree tops, searching for the scent of ethyl mercaptan from rotting bodies - and Black vultures follow them in and steal it.

Vultures are common, useful, and even quite majestic in flight, but they are not nice. They just.... aren't. When attacked on the ground they vomit over their attacker, thus simultaneously confusing him and lightening their flightload. In the hot tropical sun they defecates on their own naked legs, so that evaporation cools the blood. These droppings incidentally are so rancid they have been known to kill trees and other vegetation. Vultures can't even sing, lacking a syrinx, and communicate with hisses and grunts.

It is perhaps no surprise then, that in Mayan mythology the Black Vulture was associated with death. Their image is however positive in one specific area. The largest football club in Brazil, Flamengo, were long disparaged as The Urubus, or Vultures, by their enemies, presumably in reference to their black and red strip. This is now a source of perverse pride, and displayed at every opportunity!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well written!