Where have all the John Crows gone?


June 6, 2006

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Issues | Opinion

An item in my local morning paper this week grabbed my interest because it graphically evoked something I noticed in the island a few years back. The news story was about the rapid dying off of the eight species of vultures found in India. According to the report, as many as 95 per cent of the carrion-eating birds have disappeared in the past decade – the fastest such decline among any creatures ever recorded.

At first the deaths puzzled scientists, who searched in vain for a contagious disease. But two years ago, some American scientists found the cause – an anti-inflammatory drug farmers administer to their cattle when they fall ill. As little as one feeding from a carcass containing residues of the drug is enough to cause a vulture’s kidneys to fail. The tragedy is that even though scientists have recommended another drug which does the birds no harm, that medicine is still in general use.

Now, many people will scoff, “Who cares about a bunch of scavengers which eat rotten meat and which you wouldn’t want to touch anyway?”. But those birds occupy an important niche in the order of things, as they are nature’s housekeepers. Dead animals left lying around can spread all kinds of unpleasant diseases to other animals as well as ourselves, so the vultures, with their perfectly adapted equipment for sensing and consuming carrion, rid the environment of that particular problem.

Jamaica’s version of these birds is the Turkey Vulture, known to zoologists as Cathartes Aura, to some in the United States as the Turkey Buzzard, and to everyone in these parts as the John Crow. It’s found all over the western hemisphere, from southern Canada to the far reaches of South America, and much about its private life is still unknown to scientists. When they feel threatened, the birds will regurgitate what’s in their craw, perhaps to put off a potential attacker. The red head and neck have no feathers, the better to plunge the head into the rotting interior of road kill without fear of picking up undesirable germs. Their stomachs manufacture powerful digestive juices, able to kill off the most virulent bacteria or fungi. It is reputed that buzzards defecate on their feet to disinfect them!

Apart from the environmental disaster in the making in India, the rapid decline in the vulture population is causing serious problems for one of India’s religious minorities. People do some strange things in the name of religion, but India’s Parsis have one of the strangest. The Parsis came from Persia (now Iran) between the eighth and tenth centuries, to escape persecution from the then relatively new and muscular religion known as Islam. They are followers of Zoroaster, going back some 2500 years, and believe that the elements earth, fire, air and water are sacred, thus they can’t contaminate the earth by burying the dead in it, nor can they defile fire by burning the bodies, as the Hindus do. So after conducting the funeral service, hereditary pallbearers take the body away to an exclusive spot where they lay it out naked to be dried out by the sun, and for the vultures to eat.

Among India’s almost one billion people, the number of Parsis is minuscule, even as they form an influential commercial, intellectual and artistic group. Mumbai, which used to be known as Bombay, is home to the largest number – right now only about 40,000. And tucked away in a forested area of one of the city’s most exclusive residential areas on Malabar Hill are the dakhmas, or receptacles for the dead.

These “towers of silence” as they are euphemistically dubbed, consist of huge concrete saucers about 30 metres across, with the floor sloping down towards a pit in the middle. After the birds have picked the bones clean, the attendants return and put them in the pit, where as they slowly disintegrate, sand and charcoal in the pit filter the rain water to avoid defiling the ground.

The problem now is that with the acute shortage of vultures, the bodies sit there and rot, and people who live in expensive high-rises nearby complain about the smell and sight of the corpses, as well as the occasional chunk of human flesh dropped by the few birds which are still around.

Some Parsis say it’s time to adopt modern techniques, such as cremation, while the orthodox ones try to figure out ways to continue their bizarre tradition, such as using technology to concentrate the sun’s rays, or even to rear captive vultures to make up for nature’s shortage.

I faced this same question of the decline in the vulture population a few years back while working on a community project in south-eastern Westmoreland. I recall seeing three animal carcasses on the roadside within two days while travelling to and from Kingston.

When I was a youngster, those things would have been reduced to bones within one day, yet these were sitting there, assailing the senses of passers-by with no John Crows swooping down to dispose of them. I asked several people about this, and most hadn’t thought much about it, while some others hadn’t even noticed anything out of the ordinary. Anyway, people had got into the habit of pouring gasoline over the dead animals and setting them on fire to kill the smell and prevent the spread of contagion.

Only one person could offer a plausible explanation. An activist with the community association to which I was attached observed that the anti-ganja operations actively supported by the US could have been responsible. He pointed out that the birds like to nest in the highest places, leaving the eggs and young exposed to the herbicides sprayed to kill the weed. Even after some searching, I haven’t been able to ascertain whether this is true, and whether there are any other factors. Studies in the United States, though, have found that vultures which have ingested lead from hunters’ shotguns suffer deleterious effects at even relatively low doses.

Original article here