Birds in flight possess flawless instinct. I don’t believe this; after thirty-five years of soaring daily and twice as many on the ground looking up, I know it. Not to say they’re incapable of error, but next time one does something that appears counterproductive or graceless, keep an eye. Was it a fledgling’s ungainly first attempt at what will become its specialty for as long as that keeps it alive? Even nimble Bambi stumbled a bit her first day. I watched!
Or might it be an avian of any species, sex, or age indulging in idle playfulness? We see that a lot too. Go to a park and feed the birds until they don’t want any more, then sit back and observe. Once they’re bored some get grumpy and quarrel, but smart ones continue to indulge the curiosity that got them there.
Vultures, despite a grotesque boot leather face designed for goring rotted flesh, hardly deserve their odious reputation. It is they after all who remove the nastiest messes that no other carnivore will touch. And say what you will of their diet and personal appearance, they are consummate sailors of the sky! Seen from below, their planform can be mistaken for that of an eagle, but in lieu of strength and ferocity, vultures resort to physical exertion only when there’s no other choice (like me, but with telescopic vision).
Lethargy in wild animals does not warrant the same negative connotation we apply to people. Your house pet probably spends more time sleeping than not, though maybe it’s more lazy human than torpid beast (again, like me). Twice, years apart, I saw a vulture circle slowly down to within fifty feet of the same runway, never once flapping, while a thermal gathered strength to carry it back up. It could have pumped those huge broad wings a few strokes and climbed away, but chose to wait like a patient commuter at a bus stop, wings locked at the joints for effortless flight. Same bird each time? Gotta wonder.
Anyway, like many ‘higher’ animals, vultures occasionally exhibit what seems a playful aspect unrelated to their grisly business of feasting on carrion. I sat one day in the shade of a stone pinnacle admiring how a dozen vultures soared over and around it. Their movements marked clearly where the lift was, and also the sink. Each bird turned, lofted, or dove exactly in the right place as if choreographed — except one individual who repeatedly made an obvious wrong turn, falling out time and again in the same predictable downdraft.
Youthful inexperience, I thought at first. Then the third time I muttered, “Dumb bird, even some humans learn to not make the same mistake more than twice.” Yet, induced by some personal incentive missed or dismissed by the others, it continued to practice (and perhaps even perfect) that same ‘erroneous’ behavior every chance it got until airflow around the pinnacle changed and the whole group moved on.
Oh, our red-faced ghoul knew what was up, and for some ‘reason’ preferred down. This implies intelligence beyond the demands of survival or procreation, which if indulged becomes the superpower of curiosity. What nonconformists do with this resource is where the story lies. If you could read its mind, don’t you suppose the thoughts of that contrarian buzzard would be the most interesting?