The vulture is under-appreciated. We would all be better off if this noble creature had more of our respect. Better yet, we should make our native turkey vulture the inspiration for our economy and put it on our coins as a symbol of hope.

Canadian coins feature a variety of animals: the loon, the caribou, the polar bear, and the model-citizen beaver. No vultures though. US coins exhibit an eagle fixation, so no vultures there either. I would like to see this change.

The problem is that vultures have a bad reputation. Metaphorically, the vulture often stands for greed and ruthlessness. In the book of Leviticus, the vulture is listed among the “detestable” birds that should not be eaten (so is the eagle). In the Little Apocalypse of Matthew 24, Jesus tells his disciples to read the signs of the age as they would read the gathering of vultures around a corpse. 

Most of us know the vulture as an ugly bird that soars with little effort and eats carrion. Less well-known, but even less comely is the fact that the vulture defecates on itself as a way of cooling down and sometimes vomits partly digested food to ward off invaders. We don’t need to ignore these features to grow in our respect for vultures. We just need to notice that where other animals, humans included, see waste, the vulture sees opportunity. 

We see waste, vultures see opportunity

The vulture’s “ugliness” comes from the fact that its head is featherless. While not particularly attractive, this arrangement makes it easier for the bird to shove its head in an animal carcass and stay clean. The vulture has a better sense of smell than most birds. It’s reported to be able to smell the gases released by rotting flesh from more than a mile away, hence the benefit of coasting aloft. What’s even more impressive is the fact that the vulture’s digestive system is so tough that it isn’t threatened by salmonella, cholera, botulism or anthrax.

All of this means that the vulture finds value where others see threats. The vulture almost never kills its own food but feeds on what looks like waste. When we look at the vulture, what we should see is a model of circular economics. 

When our economy is at its best, it finds the same kind of value vultures find. In a recent interview, representatives from the footwear company Keen described how they make use of waste. They use recycled plastic to make shoelaces. They used scrap leather leftover from luxury car interiors for the shoe uppers. A good economy fits into the circularity of an ecosystem—what is waste to one is of use to another. Our human economy needs more vultures, not less. We need more companies making use of waste. 

Though we might think of the vulture’s way of life as entirely separate from our buying and selling, a moment’s reflection shows that it is not. Human economy is inseparable from ecology. This might have been more obvious when a greater portion of us worked on farms, but even the most advanced tools we use today depend on and impact the same landscapes as the vulture. 

Honoring the vulture

One way to honor the noble vulture would be to stamp its likeness on our coins. Another way would be to see it as one of the most cutting-edge actors in our economy and to imitate it. 

Many of us have experimented with this by reusing castoff shipping pallets. In my house, we have toy swords and decorative snowmen made from this waste wood. More impactful, though, is paying attention to the more significant purchases we make. We can look for things that were once other things—waste from one part of the economy incorporated into something useful. Though not always cheap, these kinds of purchases are becoming less difficult. We can also ask companies what policies they have with regard to reuse. It’s not quite as direct as eating carrion, but it sends the right message. 

Finally, we can honor the noble vulture by creating the right kind of waste. The vulture’s digestive system can handle certain toxins, but as far as I know, they still aren’t eating our discarded furniture or thriving on Neonicotinoids. One of the reasons upcycling old shipping pallets is so common is because wood is relatively easy to reuse. Thankfully, wood is making a comeback in various sectors of the economy. Other reusable materials are too. This increasing circularity is good, and I hope it will one day make the vulture proud.   

by Anthony Siegrist

Anthony  is a pastor and theologian who serves at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ontario.  Anthony’s most recent book, Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought, is available from Herald Press.

More reading

  • A great website for learning about all kinds of birds, including vultures, is that of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Here’s an episode from the podcast, Wild Ideas Worth Living, that features representatives from the Keen footwear company describing some of that company’s efforts at creating a more circular economy.
  • The webpage for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation includes a host of resources on the concept of circular economy.