Vultures of St. Victor

Reid Dickie

            Above and south of the tiny village of St Victor in southern Saskatchewan a row of naked sandstone outcrops protrude over the Sylvan Valley. The view from the place is spectacular. To the north Montague Lake is a blue dash among yellow and green fields checked with black summer fallow. To the west is Twelve Mile Lake; in the east is Willow Bunch Lake. These lakes are the remnants of a huge drainage channel that icy torrents of glacial meltwater dug from the prairie as the latest Ice Age ended. They extend east to include Big Muddy Lake and the surrounding badlands, finally to meet the Missouri River and flow to the sea.

            Etched into the top of one of the sandstone promontories is a variety of petroglyphs, images hand carved in the stone. Turtles, human faces, grizzly paws with long claws, human hands and feet, buffalo, elk and deer tracks with dewclaws, carved into the horizontal sandstone surface. Near the outer edge of the stone, there are carvings of two human feet aligned so the next step would be into thin air. Or perhaps onto the ice. It is possible this was an unglaciated area during the last Ice Age and the ice abutted this cliff. See Sacred Places page for complete report on this site.

             St Victor is one of the stops on my annual pilgrimage into the Saskatchewan holy land, a tour of ancient sacred sites, geographical anomalies and interesting “feeling” places that runs parallel to the Canada-US border. This is my fourth visit here. The tour begins in southern Manitoba at several burial mounds. In Saskatchewan it includes human effigies, turtle and buffalo effigies, the petroglyphs, a medicine wheel in Grasslands National Park, a ceremonial site near Val Marie, and the “mystery rocks” south of Cypress Hills Provincial Park to name a few of the places created by ancient peoples.

            It’s a hot day at the end of July 1998. I turned south out of St. Victor for the short drive up the steep side of the valley to the parking lot and noticed a huge dark bird circling slowly on the updrafts. I park below the sandstone cliff where the petroglyphs are.

            At the base of this outcrop, there is dense and rich forest with plenty of game. There is also a large source of red ochre. Sitting in a small pasture to the east of the road to the site, there is a large boulder bleeding red onto the ground. This would have been a strong attraction. Red ochre was used ceremonially, to “embalm” the dead and as an insect repellant.

            A short hike through a cool forest and 165 wooden stairs that wend their way up the face of the cliff gives you access to the site. The layers of stone you pass as you ascend reveal the area’s geological history. In the soft sandstone, deep tunnels have been eroded smooth by centuries of water and wind. The hen scratchings in the stone by modern visitors are lame imitations of the sublime carvings at the top.

            I get to the first landing and from above hear a sudden gruff gurgling sound. Looking up I saw a large black bird perched on a jutting rock near the top of the climb. It had naked red skin over its small head and neck, a large, cruelly hooked beak, its neck curved into a hunched black body that suggests vulture. It ruffles its feathers in a mildly threatening manner and makes the strange gurgle again as I climb the stairs. I thought the petroglyphs must have acquired a guardian spirit. A few more steps I see what the bird is guarding.

            Two almost-grown chicks stand a few meters inside a deep rock crevice. As big as adult chickens they are mostly covered with white down, their wings blackening. The parent bird takes flight as I approach and silently performs aerial ballet for the duration of my stay. Eyeing me with suspicion the chicks retreat deeper into the crevice as I pass by. When I come back down the stairs, I don’t see them at all.

            It is my first encounter with a turkey vulture, not uncommon on the prairies but this would be close to the northern limits of its habitat. A big bird, the turkey buzzard can have a wingspan of two meters. It is a carrion eater living mainly on dead and decaying flesh and finds suitable habitat from southern Canada to the Strait of Magellan. Turkey vultures are voiceless birds which accounts for the attention-getting gurgle. Though its sharp talons and curved beak suggest killing ability, they do not possess enough strength, thus the reliance on scavenging dead and decaying meat supplemented by some vegetation. Day flyers, turkey vultures have keen senses and locate food by sight and an acute sense of smell. The turkey vultures play an important role in cleaning up carcasses. Their digestive juices are so strong that no virus or bacteria can survive.

            The natural gas industry has found an interesting use for the keen sense of smell of turkey vultures. Since natural gas is odourless, a chemical, ethyl mercaptan, is added. This chemical, also produced by decaying meat, attracts turkey vultures to leaks in gas pipelines.

            If cornered, turkey vultures have two ways to defend themselves. They will suddenly roll over and play dead. Sometimes they will eject a foul-smelling vomit at their foe. Turkey vultures are among the most graceful soaring birds in the world. With the silvery lining under their wings glinting in the sun, they can glide on thermals for hours. During these long soars, the wings are held in a distinctive V shape and seldom flapped.

            Turkey vultures are not averse to being around people. They seem to enjoy us. There have been occasions when turkey vultures “adopt” a person such as the woman in California who walked her dog in a certain place each day accompanied overhead by a turkey vulture. When she was unable to walk her dog due to a broken leg, the turkey vulture found her home in a town of 12,000 people and welcomed her one morning from her backyard tree.

            Two chicks, such as the brood I encountered in the eroded sandstone, are typical. No nest is built. Instead, they lay their eggs on a rock ledge, in a cave, hollow tree or barn with several generations returning to the same spot to roost and procreate. Turkey vultures cooperate with each other in supplying food and roosting spots. They are clean birds that spend several hours each day preening themselves. Turkey vultures migrate south near the autumnal equinox.

            Since turkey vultures often return to nest in the same place, it is likely that whoever came to carve on the stone here long ago also encountered turkey vultures, watching them hover in the air, afloat on the rising thermals. 

            The layout of the site in 2011 is very different from what I just described. The wooden stairs are gone completely, destroyed in a windstorm. Access is now gained by a prairie road up the hillside. The site is approached from the rear. Limiting access is attempted by a chain link fence between viewer and site. Though I didn’t see any nesting birds in 2010, when they do return they will have privacy and protection from humans now that the staircase has been removed.

(This article can also be found on my Birdland page.)

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Filed under Birds, Sacred Places, shaman, Spirit

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