Review: Centre County Reads selection shows beauty is in the eyes of the bird-holder

They are not 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 and this year’s Centre County Reads selection “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird,” Penn State graduate 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, readers follow as Fallon carefully navigates her way through the migration patterns of the birds across states, countries and continents, painting images of the landscapes the vultures meet along their way. There is something admirable about these patterns — turkey vultures are not aimless wanderers but determined travelers, making their movements again with grace and tradition from north to south and back north.

The book, however, does not focus solely on the present activities of these peculiar birds. Vultures travel not only across the land but also through time as Fallon uncovers their 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), and were revered by these groups as reminders of the circle of life. Similarly, Fallon continues to find vultures appearing in her own life’s story as she writes about her work at the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia. She recalls her personal encounters with the birds in what are, in some instances, comedic retellings of the life of a lifelong wildlife — and turkey vulture — fan.

Fallon’s story is not the only one that unfolds as she writes: between chapters, she weaves in the story of a female vulture as she follows her instinct to her solitary nesting ground, waits for her mate, and cares for her chicks before returning north in a perfect representation of the turkey vulture’s life cycle. It’s a story that’s personal and tranquil, natural and eternal. These birds have adapted to change 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 around the country from bird shows and local festivals to sanctuaries and state parks, she cannot help but notice external environmental impacts that humans have had on the birds. From getting caught in traps to being run over in traffic to lead poisoning from feeding on animals shot with lead bullets, vultures have been negatively impacted by their interactions with humans. Advocating for the abolition of lead bullets in hunting practices, she makes note that human tradition, including hunting, tracking, and fishing, does not have to completely 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 death and new life move in an endless circle; perhaps the mixed emotions they bring forward are part of the reason for their negative connotation. In Fallon’s book, however, 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.

Emily Morrison, a Penn State senior double majoring in English and Philosophy, is an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.

Centre County Reads upcoming events

Writing the Nonhuman writing contest, entries due by March 11. Visit www.centrecountyreads.org for submission guidelines.

“The Changing Nature of Nature Writing” roundtable discussion, 3:30-5 p.m. March 12, Mann Assembly Room, Paterno Library

Meet the Creek, 2:30-4 p.m. March 31, Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center

Evening with Katie Fallon, 7:30-9 p.m. April 4, Assembly Room, Nittany Lion Inn

For more information about Centre County Reads or events, visit www.centrecountyreads.org