Taking Flight

Every autumn those plumed, pink-pated carpetbaggers known as turkey vultures dutifully return to the steely ziggurat atop the Miami-Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami. And every year the Miami Herald dutifully announces their return, usually in flourishes of florid prose.

But this year the vultures came and the Herald didn't herald. How were we supposed to know that the long bright blight of summer had ended? Perhaps we could have inferred it from evidence such as shrinking FPL bills and the torrent of Europeans and South Americans in South Beach, but shouldn't we just have been able to pick up the morning newspaper? The Herald is the paper of record, after all.

The demise of the weekly Tropic magazine was apparently just the beginning of cutbacks at 1 Herald Plaza. It seems the turkey vulture desk has been abandoned like yesterday's roadkill.

After all these years of continuing coverage, how will we get by without gripping headlines such as "Buzzards wing in for winter" (1984); "Courthouse vultures back" (1985); "It's time for snowbirds, buzzards" (1986); "Vultures buzz Southeast Center" (1987); "Vultures rule roost again" (1988); "Courthouse vultures" (1989); "Signs of fall dot sky" (1991); "Miami -- City of Vultures" (1995); "Rite of spring: Buzzards are back in Ohio (1995 -- what a twist!); "The vultures are baaack!" (1996); "Buzzards are back in Miami" (1997).

This year, other than last month's announcement of a small arts festival honoring the birds, not a peep. Not even a -- what sound do vultures make, a croak?

"They don't really vocalize," says painfully overexposed Metrozoo spokesman Ron Magill. "They hiss a lot. When they're fighting or really under stress, they'll make a sort of coughing, grunting sound, like, ungh, ungh. Why do you ask? You doing the vultures-coming-back-to-the-courthouse story?"

Well, New Times replies, the story is that the Herald hasn't done it.
"Hahahahahaha!" he cackles.
The Herald's dearth of vulture coverage this year is no laughing matter though. Especially to the usual sources for vulture stories.

"Shame on them," chides Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, a Miami-Dade Community College professor and vulture celebrant who, for the first time in years, has not been contacted by the Herald for a buzzard sound bite. "I'm disappointed to find out they're showing no respect at all for one of the few really dramatic harbingers of a change of season we have here."

Ah, there's that word. Over the years, the Herald's V-team has pelted its readership vocab words describing vulture behavior ("perfunctory," "thermoregulate," "gregarious," "regurgitate"), but the word "harbinger" has clearly ruled the roost. In 1991 the redoubtable Geoffrey Tomb wrote, "In other places, robins are airborne signs of spring. Turkey vultures are South Florida's harbingers. When the vultures appear in mid-October, like dark-winged angels, they bring fall break."

Speaking of similes, Tomb also described the vultures as "big as a fixed-wing Cessna, as dark as Dracula's heart." In 1996 Patrick May assessed them as "the size of microwaves" and dubbed them "the Hunchbacks of Notre Courthouse."

Tomb and May have both been in awe of the spectacular scavengers.
Tomb's lead from the 1991 story: "Oh, to be a buzzard now that fall break has come."

May's lead from the 1996 story: "Ahh, sweet November."
Oh-ing and Ahh-ing aside, Tomb apparently thought the word he used in 1991 might have soared as far over his readers' heads as did the oft-lauded offal-munchers. His 1997 buzzard bulletin began thusly: "Harbinger, n. -- a person or thing that comes before to announce or give an indication of what follows; herald."

(Ron Magill remembers that story and confirms that, in fact, he did not know the definition of the word "harbinger" until Tomb enlightened him.)

In another disturbing harbinger at the Herald, vulture maven Tomb has also taken flight. Following the greater Knight Ridder trend of westward migration, he landed at the San Jose Mercury News; May is also perched there. Who has assumed their responsibility for the buzzard beat? Nobody. First Tropic, now the sunsetting of carrion-fowl coverage. What's next on the chopping block? Family Circus? Is nothing sacred?



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