Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Black vulture eating an armadillo

with 62 comments

“Wait a minute, not so fast,” you say, “your title can’t fool me. Neither of these pictures shows a black vulture eating an armadillo. The first is of a bull nettle flower (Cnidoscolus texanus), and the second shows yellowing Lindheimer’s senna leaflets (Senna lindheimeriana) backlit by the sun.” That’s what you say, and you’re right.

The fact remains that maybe once a year in my part of Austin I’ve come across and photographed vultures eating a dead animal. I’ve never posted any of those pictures because even if scenes like that are a part of life in the natural world, many viewers would find them gross. On August 5th, driving back home from the outing in my neighborhood that produced the two pictures above (along with those of the two green herons you recently saw), I had my latest encounter, this time with an armadillo providing the food for a black vulture (Coragyps atratus). If you’re up for such a picture, you can follow this link to see it. If you’d rather stick with the pretty white flower and backlit yellowing leaflets, no one will blame you.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 25, 2020 at 4:36 AM

62 Responses

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  1. Good post.

    rajkkhoja

    August 25, 2020 at 4:41 AM

  2. I suspected the title was just to grab our attention! I chose not to look at the vulture as I am just having my lunch. 😉 (Maybe later!)

    Cathy

    August 25, 2020 at 6:10 AM

  3. I’m the odd weirdo that went right to the feast shot. I have always loved vultures, cleansers of the earth. Here we see mostly turkey vultures, and the black vultures are a rare find! I think you are fortunate to have seen vultures at work. I have longed to photograph them feasting on something, but either I do not have my camera and zoom, or I’m not sneaky enough and they fly off before I can manage it.

    I have gotten some flack for posting death photos of animals. What you did – providing a link where the viewer can decide to look or not, is a good idea. I also get comments where people do not like to see reptiles or spiders.

    Littlesundog

    August 25, 2020 at 8:01 AM

    • Good for intrepid you for taking a look right away. When it comes to more finicky viewers, you can do what I did and hide a potentially disturbing picture behind a link. Whether you’ll also want to compensate with pretty pictures the way I did is up to you.

      In Austin we have both turkey vultures and black vultures, and I’ve managed to photograph both. You’re right that vultures are skittish, so I approach with my lens zoomed to 400mm to keep as far away as possible while still getting detailed pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 1:52 PM

  4. After the initial shock of reading a title that seemed so out of place came the relief and joy of seeing more of your fabulous photos again.

    Peter Klopp

    August 25, 2020 at 8:28 AM

    • It’s not clear whether you looked at only the first two pictures or whether you took the plunge and glanced at the vulture as well.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 1:54 PM

      • I have to confess I did not click on the link.

        Peter Klopp

        August 26, 2020 at 7:52 AM

        • I’m sure you’re not alone in your choice. It’s another case of “über Geschmack lässt sich nicht streiten.”

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 26, 2020 at 7:56 AM

  5. I find it interesting, and reassuring, that vultures can eat the things they can eat and effectively control leprosy and other diseases. I like how you handled that~those of us who are interested can see the cool photo of the vulture while others can content themselves with pretty flowers. I love both! Like you, I have a stash of photos I’m not sure it would be wise to share, let alone paint, of the darker aspects of the natural world.

    Not as dark as the human world. Yesterday and last night there was looting and rioting in Kenosha, where my sweet little gallery is, because yet another white cop shot yet another black man. I cannot believe it is so often necessary to shoot and use force on people although I am not naive enough to suppose it never is. So now this morning there is another deep wound in the community, and plywood on the gallery windows.

    melissabluefineart

    August 25, 2020 at 8:57 AM

    • When I heard the name Kenosha the other day I thought about you right away, remembering how you took us to your favorite coffee shop there four years ago. The news media often sensationalize events instead of waiting till all the facts are in. We’ll eventually find out what’s what in this incident. It’s also the case that some news media only publicize events of a certain kind and omit those of other kinds, making it seem like the kind they show you is much more common than it actually is, as you can confirm by checking the overall statistics.

      Vultures sure do have a very strong immune system. I wonder if there’s a way to transfer any of that to people.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 2:05 PM

      • You’re right about national coverage. In this case I’ve learned a bit more. It seems the man involved was trying to break up a fight between two women, and one of the women decided to call the police. When the police arrived he didn’t want to talk with them, and so went to get his children into his car and drive away. As he opened the door of his vehicle, a police officer shot him. In the back. 7 times. At this time he is stable and there is a GoFundMe account established to pay his medical and legal fees. Even if he had been instigating the trouble, he did nothing to justify being shot in the back. And to me it begs the question: did he not have the right to walk away from the situation?

        melissabluefineart

        August 25, 2020 at 3:25 PM

        • This is why it’s important to wait for all the facts. New evidence comes in, people change their stories, etc. You ask whether Blake had the right to walk away from the situation. According to one website (which of course could be mistaken): “There was also a warrant for his arrest filed in Wisconsin Circuit Court in July on charges of criminal trespass, domestic abuse and third-degree sexual assault.” If in fact a warrant for his arrest had been in force since July, the police couldn’t have let him just walk away. Another website reports the existence of a video showing Blake struggling with police before trying to get into his car.

          I don’t know the truth of any of these things, but I expect authorities will find out the facts eventually.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 25, 2020 at 4:05 PM

          • Oh dear, I hadn’t seen those facts. That changes the picture quite a bit, doesn’t it? Thank you for letting me know that.

            melissabluefineart

            August 26, 2020 at 7:37 AM

            • I’ve seen so many cases where the earliest reports proved incorrect that I’m always cautious about drawing conclusions. And as I mentioned earlier, the problem is compounded by the fact that some websites and news outlets report only the details that support their ideological interpretation of what happened. What really depresses me is that some of those outlets stick to their original narrative even after facts have been revealed that disprove it. Call me Mr. Cynical.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 26, 2020 at 7:51 AM

  6. Initial response was Oh-oh… but then the pleasant surprise of your photos. …and then, the link. I followed it. Poor armadillo, but it’s nature. I’ve seen so many films and photos of human cruelty towards animals that this was, well, okay and appreciated the shot too. 😉

    marina kanavaki

    August 25, 2020 at 8:58 AM

    • There are many more animals than people, and a lot of those animals kill and eat one another. Some, like cats, are even known to toy with their prey before killing them. Looked at in that light, human cruelty to animals isn’t unique. Of course you could say that people have the power to reason and should know better.

      Based on the armadillo’s location along the road that leads into my neighborhood, I assume it had been hit by a car and was already dead when the vultures found it. According to an article on the Internet, black vultures eat mainly carrion but also kill some live prey, especially young or sick birds and small mammals. It can be a cruel world out there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 2:23 PM

      • Nature is the mother of ultimate beauty AND …ugliness. Us humans, as you say have the power of reason, so yes, we should know better.

        marina kanavaki

        August 26, 2020 at 3:16 AM

      • Wasn’t sure which post I thought best to reply to WRT vultures eating prey dead or alive. I had written “Do Vultures Really Eat Only Dead Prey?” (https://whilldtkwriter.blogspot.com/2015/02/do-vultures-really-eat-only-dead-prey.html) in 2015. Coincidentally, Steve, I secured permission from you to use a couple of vulture images from your blog (2012) in my article. (Attribution & links are in my article.) Short answer–they eat dead prey, but occasionally eat live prey.

        whilldtkwriter

        August 26, 2020 at 3:04 PM

        • Based on what I found online yesterday, you’re correct that black vultures eat dead animals, but occasionally they eat live prey. The site I looked at said that the occasional killing of live prey is primarily a feature of black vultures rather than turkey vultures.

          As for the difference between vultures and buzzards, you pointed out that there is, at least technically. The problem is that many people use the words interchangeably in common parlance. That’s similar to bug, which has a technical meaning as a certain kind of insect, yet people use the term colloquially to mean any kind of insect and sometimes even other little critters like spiders.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 26, 2020 at 4:42 PM

  7. Of course photos like that look gross to us, but nature has provided her own undertakers.

    Pit

    August 25, 2020 at 9:52 AM

  8. I see the table included some crabgrass garnish, but no flowers for the feast??
    I prefer your shot of the backlit leaves!

    Robert Parker

    August 25, 2020 at 11:05 AM

    • Leave it to you to describe a “table” and a “garnish” of crabgrass. I’m sorry I couldn’t include some flowers in the linked picture; had it been spring, that might have been possible along the road where I took the vulture picture. In any case, I appreciate your letting me know you prefer the backlit leaves.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 2:38 PM

  9. We have turkey buzzards here that are occasionally found feeding on something out in the back lot.

    Lavinia Ross

    August 25, 2020 at 11:38 AM

    • We have both kinds in Austin. Have you managed to get any pictures of the turkey vultures you’ve found feeding in your back lot?

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 2:39 PM

  10. Nice title to draw us in and yes, I looked, and it’s an excellent capture! I’ll agree it’s a bit gross, but so needed to clean up the dead. The flowers are nice, too 🙂

    Ellen Jennings

    August 25, 2020 at 12:09 PM

    • So you looked. As you say, vultures perform a service. As for the flower, those of bull nettle are pretty and even have a pleasant fragrance if you get your nose close to them, but most people don’t think to do that because the rest of the plant bristles with chemical-filled needles that cause pain and a burning sensation if they get into your skin. I say that from reading, fortunately not from experience.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 2:49 PM

      • 🙂 Glad to know to keep my nose away! I do try to be watchful for anything that might sport “chemical-filled needles” or other itch/pain/burning inducing properties. Goodness knows there is plenty out there to watch out for.

        Ellen Jennings

        August 26, 2020 at 4:15 PM

        • I do make the effort to sniff bull nettle flowers, always being careful to be maintain my balance and keep from letting any part of my body come near the plant’s many needles. You’re right that plenty of other plants are also all too willing to attack us.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 26, 2020 at 5:15 PM

  11. if vultures did not exist, we’d invent them

    MichaelStephenWills

    August 25, 2020 at 2:05 PM

    • That’s a good way to put it. Any that people invented these days would probably be electronic.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 2:50 PM

  12. That was a clever version of bait-and-switch, giving folks the option. I followed the link too, of course, but after appreciating the leaders. The bull nettle flower resembles the Daphne we had in Omaha (https://krikitarts.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/dear-daphne/), and the senna leaves really sparkle.

    krikitarts

    August 25, 2020 at 4:13 PM

    • We can call it bait-and-optionally-switch. Glad you like the Senna sparkle, which matches my initials.

      I had to look up Daphne odora. I see it’s from China and in a botanical family I don’t believe I’ve heard of, Thymelaeaceae.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 4:40 PM

  13. Maybe I am a little weird, but I actually prefer your vulture shot, Steve, in part because we don’t have armadillos around here. There is an intensity in that shot that is not quite matched by your prettier images. Many folks praise my shots when I capture a bald eagle or an osprey pulling a fish out of the water, but somehow feel squeamish about a vulture consuming something that is already dead. Wild creatures need to eat in order to survive and I have no reservations about posting shots that some may find a bit too graphic. If the sensitive souls are vegetarians, I have a little sympathy, but if they eat meat, it might be considered a bit hypocritical, considering how these animals are killed. For what it’s worth, I post images of snakes and spiders even though I know some of my readers are totally creeped out by them. I get my strongest reactions when I post images of spiders killing butterflies or snakes swallowing frogs while the frogs are still alive.

    Mike Powell

    August 25, 2020 at 6:51 PM

    • Chacun à son goût, n’est-ce pas? I understand why you’d get strong reactions to pictures of spiders killing butterflies or snakes swallowing frogs alive. I don’t think I have pictures as provocative to people as those, but if I did and decided to post any, I’d probably do what I did here and give people both a way out and something else in compensation. You make a good point about the difference between an osprey pulling a live fish out of the water and a vulture consuming something that is already dead. (As an aside, I learned that black vultures do sometimes also kill other animals.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 25, 2020 at 7:18 PM

      • Or as they say in Latin, “De gustibus non disputandum est.” I did not know that Black Vultures kill other animals. FYI we also have them in my area in addition to Turkey Vultures. Regarding my “graphic posts,” here is a link to one with a snake and frog (https://michaelqpowell.com/2015/11/14/hard-to-swallow/) and one with a spider and butterfly (https://michaelqpowell.com/2017/08/21/spider-and-monarch/). I’m thinking that maybe my osprey/eagle analogy was not quite right because people don’t seem to object to hunting, only to killing and consuming. Maybe a heron swallowing a fish whole might be closer (and most people don’t seem to object to that because it is done so quickly with no bloodshed), like this one (https://michaelqpowell.com/2018/12/19/one-that-didnt-get-away/). Are any of these images ones that you would have used in a posting without giving an opt-out warning?

        Mike Powell

        August 25, 2020 at 8:09 PM

        • I might well have forgone a warning about the one that didn’t get away. Pictures like that are fairly common in nature shows on television. I probably would have put the other two behind links, just in case. On the other hand, in the early days of this blog I did show a picture of a grebe holding a frog in its bill:

          https://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/not-a-kind-of-predation-i-expected/

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 25, 2020 at 10:28 PM

          • I’m really glad that we had this conversation, Steve, because it forced me to re-examine my approach to photography and to my blog. I suspect that we both agree to some extent with the statement attributed to Socrates about the unexamined life. I have concluded that there I am not willing to post absolutely everything–there are some images that are too gruesome or graphic for sharing. It is clear, though, that your line of separation between sharing and not sharing is quite different from mine. I am ok with that. Although we sometimes shoot similar subjects, your images tend to have a higher artistic/quality to them, while mine are a bit more down-and-dirty as I try to capture action whenever I can. I think, though, that our approaches are more complementary than oppositional–it is not about being right or wrong, it’s about presenting the natural world to our viewers in a way that is genuine, authentic, and reflective of our creative vision.

            Mike Powell

            August 26, 2020 at 6:19 AM

            • I appreciate your thoughtful reply, Mike. I don’t know that I have a hard and fast line between what I’ll show and what I won’t—and whatever line I might have one day could be different the next. Moods change, external events intrude: we never step in the same river twice, and all that. And of course in different posts we may be trying to accomplish different things. You’re right that I’ve leaned in the direction of artistic portraits for some time, especially lately, even if I occasionally throw in what I call an information picture to show the context of a subject. And sometimes there’s so much “junk” behind or around a subject that I can’t find an obvious way to be as artsy as I’d like.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 26, 2020 at 7:14 AM

  14. That’s a fabulous image of the vulture and armadillo. Around here, it’s usually vulture-and-squirrel, and it’s really amazing how quickly the vultures can dispose of one. Of course, they can’t consume an entire armadillo, which probably helps to explain why so many remain alongside the roads. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen a turkey vulture in town, while they’re quite common out in the country. Here, I always see the black vultures.

    To be honest, my most visceral reaction was related to the bull nettle. I still remember the day I didn’t recognize one for what it was, and managed to sit on it.

    shoreacres

    August 26, 2020 at 7:15 AM

    • Visceral describes the wrong part of your anatomy but we’ll give you a pass. I think you’re the only person I know who’s experienced the effects of bull nettle, unfortunately for you. I remember where I saw the plant for the first time; thankfully nothing untoward happened. I suspect you’re still fond of bull nettle flowers, white as they are.

      As for the vulture, the full version of the picture I showed includes its whole body but I decided to crop in to emphasize the eating. When I see one of these birds it’s usually with several others of its kind, even if often only one is feeding, as here, while the others keep further away. I guess there’s a pecking order.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 26, 2020 at 7:38 AM

  15. I looked! Nature does what nature does.

  16. Love the backlit leaves, lovely pattern. The vulture shot is a beauty! I got a wedgetail eagle feasting on a wallaby the evening before last, I was too far away and the light was too dim for it to be any good and when I walked down, plovers bombed it and it flew off before I got the shot.

    TasView

    August 26, 2020 at 6:14 PM

    • I don’t know why, but I’ve never thought about raptors in Australia attacking your local fauna, even though obviously that’s what they do. Sorry the circumstances didn’t let you get a good shot. Backlighting is a favorite technique of mine, one whose results have often enough appeared in these posts.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 26, 2020 at 6:42 PM

      • Mostly they scavenge from roadkill or get rabbits and smaller prey, though this huge one did carry the wallaby off and dropped it on a fence. I haven’t had a chance to look at my shots yet, maybe I got lucky 🙂

        TasView

        August 26, 2020 at 10:36 PM

  17. Well, . . . it got my attention.

    tonytomeo

    August 27, 2020 at 3:09 PM

  18. Mmmmm. Warm armadillo for dinner. Very good shot of the cycle of Nature. Nice shots of the flowers too.

    Steve Gingold

    August 29, 2020 at 7:07 PM

    • I hadn’t thought about the sidewalk under the summer sun doing its share of cooking the armadillo.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 30, 2020 at 7:57 AM

  19. You got our attention with your title! I like the back-lighting on the leaflets.

    denisebushphoto

    August 30, 2020 at 11:41 AM

    • You may have noticed that I’m a fan of backlighting and have posted plenty of pictures taken that way.

      As for the attention-getting title, did you go ahead and look at the vulture eating the armadillo?

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 30, 2020 at 11:53 AM

  20. The vulture shot is very cool, though gruesome. It’s always exciting to me to see them on the ground, where their size is so much more apparent than in the air.

    bluebrightly

    September 4, 2020 at 7:55 PM

    • And I’m always a little surprised that such large critters are able to fly.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2020 at 11:22 PM

      • But one almost always sees them in flight. We were astounded recently when we saw NINE vultures perched in two trees. They appeared to be waking up. Most barely moved for 10 minutes, one stretched its wings a bit. And we weren’t far away. Always something new!

        bluebrightly

        September 18, 2020 at 3:05 PM

        • I think I’ve seen that many together on the ground, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen nine near each other in trees.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 18, 2020 at 5:41 PM


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