This yellow-headed vulture is Zopilote Cathartes — “the purifier.”
We’re going to spend some time with Kate Marden, master falconer. Marden, 55, owns West Coast Falconry in Marysville, California, and is a partner in West Coast Falconry–San Diego, which can be found in Alpine.
We’ll get to the sport of falconry and what it takes, which, by the way, is a lot, but to start, here’s some Kate. I reached her by phone Sunday night. I’d been up to her facility a couple days earlier for a basic falconry class and toured her stock of owls, falcons, and hawks. One creature has stayed in my mind, to wit: her yellow-headed vulture. I wanted more.
Marden says, “I love that vulture, he cracks me up. I don’t hunt with him, he’s specifically for conservation. He’s what is called a yellow-headed vulture and they’re found in Brazil. His name is Zopilote Cathartes. Zopilote is Aztec for vulture, and Cathartes is the genus of all Western Hemisphere vultures, it means, “the purifier.” He was bred by a fellow who lives in Southern California. He breeds birds for the movies.
“Vultures are — this sounds weird — the apex predators of dead things. Once the meat gets botulism in it, they won’t eat it. They’re the top of the decomposition food chain.
“They are considered a bird of prey and the yellow-headed vulture will hunt small game like mice and frogs and crawdads. They will eat live game, but they have to live in a cooperative world, because there’s more live stuff than there is dead stuff. That’s why you see a bunch of vultures hanging out together. They will share a kill. Feeding vultures will back off and allow other vultures to eat.
“Most New World vultures only eat the meat. They don’t eat the bones, don’t eat the skin, they just go for the meat. That means they’re on a pure protein diet and you burn through that really quick. So, you can’t be selfish when you’re eating pure protein. In order for the species to survive you have to be a bit more social.
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“I think they’re intriguing. They’re like the unsung hero. They are very social, very intelligent, kind of sweet, a little bit bizarre, and I just find them fascinating. [Zopilote Cathartes] is just the cutest guy in the world. And he grew up in my house. He used to play with the dogs and cats.
“He was born April 29. He was ten days old when I got him. I hand-raised him. He looked like a lamb with a plague mask on, because when they’re babies, they have a black face and a black beak. So, here is a gray ball of cotton with one of those plague masks like they used to wear during the plague. He was just the cutest thing. And he lived in the basket. I’d have to clean the basket at very regular intervals. He was this little baby. I would feed him all the time. He didn’t do anything but sleep, eat, and poop. After a while he became more inquisitive and he became stronger, so he’d wander all around the house.
“When he started flying he had to have a nice, big cage. Plus, he reached the point where he wasn’t playing with the dogs anymore; he was harassing them.
“I got him around the middle of May and he finally had to go outside around the middle of July. He slept in the house a lot, but he poops; it’s just too messy. That’s the main reason why he has to sleep outside. You can’t potty-train them.
“But, I’d still bring him inside. We had a heat wave — like, 112 [degrees] for five or six days in a row. It was just ugly. So, we’d get up really, really early and take care of all the birds, then we’d bring the falcons into the house where it’s air-conditioned. We’d put the hawks in their room, it has an air-conditioning unit. Everybody hides from the heat.
“I’m old enough now so I can start taking naps again, so this one day I brought my vulture in because it was too damn hot. I climbed on my bed and fell asleep. I woke up and had one of my dogs next to my shoulder up on my right side. Had another dog down on my lower right side. The left lower side I had my cat and up here at my left shoulder was my vulture sleeping next to me on the bed.”
He’s so cool.
Marden can be reached at westcoast-falconry.com or 530-749-0839. For West Coast Falconry–San Diego, call 619-722-0092 or stop by skyfalconry.com. Both locations offer classes and are available for events.