Levin: Black Vultures Move North

Apr 17, 2017

Just a few days ago, a black vulture appeared above Walpole, New Hampshire, thirty-seven years after I confirmed the first turkey vulture nest in northern New England.

Chunkier, heavier, and much less aerodynamically sound than a turkey vulture, black vultures were once suggestive of the Deep South. Forty years ago, they barely crossed the Mason Dixon Line.

Forged in the crucible of sun and rock, black vultures are as moored to thermals as sailboats to wind - held aloft by columns of warm air rising from heated ledges and roads. And any way you look at it, a short-winged, short-tailed, black vulture anywhere near Vermont is a sign of a changing climate.

The first Massachusetts breeding record was 1999; Connecticut 2002. Recently, I spotted a black vulture above Hadley, Massachusetts, just thirty miles from Vermont, drifting with an air of triumphant ascendancy. I was so surprised by its presence - it’s kind of cool looking with a terminal white splotch on a black under-wing - I nearly drove off the highway.

Other local signs of climate change include a huge swath of Lake Champlain between Addison and Crown Point that remained ice-free all last winter - coaxing thousands of ducks of twelve different species to overwinter.

Curious about Champlain’s freezing records, I checked the NOAA website and discovered that from 1816 to 1969 portions of the lake remained ice-free only six times - approximately 4% of the winters. Then, between 1970 and 2016, it remained open twenty-six times, more than half the winters.

Even the rattlesnakes I study have responded to a warming world. In the ‘80s, I’d visit dens from mid- to late May, when snakes would bask beneath a filigree of nearly leafless branches. Now, snake viewing season often begins, tentatively and tenuously, in mid-April and ends well before Memorial Day, when den-side basking rocks lie in shade.

It’s true that for more than four billion years Earth has both warmed and cooled. During the Age of Dinosaurs the planet was entirely tropical; and during glacial pulses much remained straight-jacketed in ice. But the speed and extremes of this latest cycle concern me. The arrival of the black vulture in Vermont suggests a climate warming rapidly.

If we continue to deny a link between our lifestyles and a bipolar climate, who’s to say we won’t soon be seeing Andean condors above the Dartmouth green.