A few years ago, when I felt led down a new path of a deeper spiritual journey, I encountered a turkey vulture, not on the roadside cleaning up remains of a dead animal, but up close and personal, diving and circling all around my house within about 10 feet of me. This went on for several minutes before the bird soared away, and somehow I knew that this unusual display was more than chance, that some higher power was trying to get my attention. I had had several previous odd, direct, and profound encounters with birds or animals during that phase. With each occurrence, I had known from the feeling that came over me that there was some deeper connection or meaning, some presence and power surrounding the event. This time, I did not even know what kind of bird this was as it soared like an eagle in front of me, because I had never seen a vulture so close up in flight, had never imagined that a vulture could be this graceful and beautiful, but I was able to ascertain what it was because of it’s distinctive red head that looked a little like a turkey (hence the name).
Ancient cultures understood how God and Spirit can speak to us through animals. Native Americans also used (or still use) animals in their spiritual practices, or look to them as symbolic messengers. I knew deeply that these birds and animals that came to me in unusual and undeniable ways were calling me to a greater purpose, each providing some sort of guidance or wisdom. My discernment has not led me incorrectly, rather it had connected me to deeper serendipitous events or guided me down my path. Knowing this, I started reading about the Turkey Vulture to derive more meaning from my messenger.
I learned that the turkey vulture’s wing span is approximately 6 feet wide (I can vouch for their incredible size from this animal soaring within 10 feet of me on my deck!). Their task in life is to clean up the mess, but an even more interesting aspect of the turkey vulture is that it is the only bird (or presumably only animal) whose feces is disease free. So the turkey vulture kindly cleans up dead carcasses or rotting flesh, then purifies them from any bacteria – making them perhaps nature’s most perfect cleansing animal. They struggle with take off and appear awkward in early flight, but once they are off the ground, they soar like eagles (often mistaken as such at a distance), and can fly for hours without ever flapping their wings, riding thermals and currents. The turkey vulture that appeared to me did absolute acrobatics around me, looping effortlessly in glorious flight.
They are gentle and non-aggressive creatures, never killing, only cleaning up the mess of what has already been killed. A turkey vulture’s means of protecting itself is not to fight or cause harm, but to regurgitate on itself in order to keep its attacker away, making itself undesirable to stave off harm. It is a meek and gentle being. Since this up-close visit from the turkey vulture, I have often pondered how we tend to judge this animal on its outward, “ugly” appearance and its “gross” habit of being drawn to and eating roadkill, not taking the time to be grateful for its continued deed of being nature’s garbage man, gladly cleaning up the messes that others have left behind. We usually fail to see its absolute beauty – glorious flight, peacefulness, and contributing to the good of the earth. I have wondered if some of those “less desirable” humans (in our judgmental eyes) are our turkey vultures, knowing secretly how to soar…knowing things, doing things that we never take the time to see.
The turkey vulture is symbolic of soulful cleansing, reaching a higher spiritual place…overcoming obstacles that we may encounter when trying to fly, but then soaring like an eagle when we get off the ground…cleansing the world bit by bit, day by day, by offering ourselves in service…being peaceful and non-aggressive, defending ourselves from attack, but only in ways that do not harm others. We should all be more like the turkey vulture. I see the turkey vulture as being much like Jesus and other great spiritual masters – peaceful, cleansing, non-aggressive, often considered down-trodden or less than desirable by society at large – all the while being a Divine model for us to emulate.
The next time you encounter this bird, see it as beautiful…be grateful toward it…acknowledge and thank it…then be more like it in your daily life. The world will surely be a better place if more of us do so.