Buzzards and Gas Leaks
For an illustrated version, see pages 16-18 in The Environmentor, vol. 6, no. 2.
Folktale: Monkey and Buzzard
In Africa one morning, the sun had barely come up but it was already hot. Rabbit peeked out of her hole. What a hot day it was going to be!
She looked up in the sky and saw a dark speck circling, coming lower... It was Buzzard. Buzzard landed next to Rabbit. "Good morning, sister! How hot you look down here! Don't you know, it's cool and pleasant up in the sky. Wouldn't you like to come with me for a cool ride in the sky?"
Rabbit remembered that her mother used to say buzzards love to eat fresh rabbit for breakfast. But this seemed like such a nice buzzard! "Thanks, I'd love to come ride with you!"
Rabbit hopped onto Buzzard's back. Buzzard took off and soon they were high in the sky, enjoying the cool breeze. But after a while Buzzard said, "Rabbit, you're getting heavy. I need to go down for a landing." Buzzard dove almost straight down [nyaooowww sound effect) but swooped up at the last moment.
Rabbit had no seatbelt. Splat!
Buzzard ate fresh rabbit for breakfast.
It was noon, and the sun overhead made everything hot, hot, hot. Squirrel climbed as high as he could into the branches of a tree, hoping for a cool breeze. He saw a dark speck in the skycircling, coming lower... It was Buzzard. Buzzard landed next to Squirrel.
"Good day, brother Squirrel! How hot you look down here! Don't you know, it's cool and pleasant up in the sky. Wouldn't you like to come with me for a cool ride in the sky?"
Squirrel remembered that his mother always said buzzards love to eat fresh squirrel for lunch. But this seemed like such a nice buzzard! "Thanks, I'd love to come ride with you!"
Squirrel hopped onto Buzzard's back. Buzzard took off and soon they were high in the sky, enjoying the cool breeze. But after a while Buzzard said, "Squirrel, you're getting heavy. I need to go down for a landing." Buzzard dove almost straight down nyaooowww but swooped up at the last moment.
Squirrel had no seatbelt. Splat!
Buzzard ate fresh squirrel for lunch.
It was evening. The sun had set, but the day's heat lingered on.
A monkey stepped out of the jungle into the open grassland and began to dance around, arms extended like wings. "Monkey, what are you doing?"
"I'm doing a buzzard dance," replied Monkey.
"Don't you know, buzzards like to eat fresh monkey for supper?"
"I know," she said, "but I have a plan."
They all saw a dark speck in the sky circling, coming lower... It was Buzzard. Buzzard landed next to Monkey.
"Nice dance," said Buzzard. "But I'll bet it's making you hot. Wouldn't you like to come with me for a cool ride in the sky?"
Monkey said, "Good idea!" and she hopped onto Buzzard's back.
Buzzard took off and soon they were high in the sky, enjoying the cool breeze. After a while Buzzard said, "Monkey, you're getting heavy. I need to go down for a landing."
But Monkey said, "No thanks! I'm enjoying this cool ride!" She wrapped her tail around Buzzard's neck and pulled hard. Buzzard couldn't dive down!
Monkey steered Buzzard all over the sky. They did aerobatic tricks: figure eights, spirals, barrel rolls. The animals down below saw what was happening and laughed at Buzzard. "Look at that! He's got a monkey on his back! He can't control himself!"
Finally Buzzard choked, "Monkey, I'm really getting tired. You're so heavy! I've got to go down."
"Okay," said Monkey, "but go down slow and easy." Monkey steered Buzzard into a gentle landing.
The minute Monkey hopped off his back, Buzzard took off with the other animals laughing at him. He knew all the animals would soon hear what had happened. He could never fool them again! He warned the other buzzards.
So from then on, buzzards no longer try to get fresh meat. They only eat meat that is safely already dead.
Yech, why would any critter eat dead/rotten food--really? Worldwide, there are many folktales that "explain" this diet. In your classroom, this story could introduce the subject of food webs and natural hygiene.
Our western hemisphere vultures (Turkey vulture Cathartes aura, Condor, etc) hunt by smell. They are very good at detecting the sulfurous mercaptans that are released when dead animals rot.
[We commonly say “buzzard” and “vulture” interchangeably, but in Africa (where the folktale originated), "buzzards" are raptors who hunt rodents, rabbits, snakes etc while "vultures" eat only carrion -- dead stuff. This story was probably about an African vulture, but US tellers pictured our turkey vulture who is also called turkey buzzard, or just buzzard. ]
You know the smell of mercaptans if you've ever been around a leaky gas stove. Pure natural gas has no odor, so the gas companies add stinky ethyl mercaptan (CH3CH2SH) to give us fair warning of a leak. That stuff smells awful: like rotten eggs, garlic, dirty socks, and road kill! Even though our human noses are much less sensitive than dogs' or vultures', we can smell that stinky mercaptan and be warned of a dangerous gas leak.
So it's no surprise that vultures can smell gas leaks too. In fact, gas company employees noticed that turkey vultures would circle over a leaking pipeline. To find a leak, all the humans have to do is look up! The turkey vultures are especially helpful when the crew has to find leaks in rugged, hazardous territory. Sometimes they even add extra mercaptan to a stretch of pipe when the leaks are small and very difficult for humans to find -- but the vultures can find them. Because they smell like dead stuff!
FOLKTALE: My telling is based on a story told to me many years ago by the late African American teller Ayubu Kamau, over lunch in a Tulsa cafe. He didn't say where he learned it.
Diane Wolkstein published a similar story as a picture book, The Cool Ride in the Sky (Alfred A Knopf 1973) ISBN-10: 0394924894. She credits and quotes "Straighten Up and Fly Right," a 1943 song written by Nat King Cole and Irving Mills, which was based on a folk tale that Cole's minister father had used as a sermon theme. (Cole’s song lyrics clearly say Buzzard.) Wolkstein doesn't mention "a monkey on his back" (analogy to obsession or addiction); Kamau may have emphasized this because of his work with juvenile offenders.
"Straighten up and fly right" story told by John Blackamore, collected by Richard M. Dorson (American Negro Folktales) can be found reprinted in My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore edited by Daryl Cumber Dance, pp 26-27 (Norton paperback 2003)
The Role of Olfaction in Food Location by the Turkey Vulture