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Further thoughts on buzzards and the unexplainable

A former rancher offers reflections on a world beyond our comprehension


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Further thoughts on buzzards and the unexplainable

John R. Erickson, author of 70 Hank the Cowdog books and other ranch-based stories, knows his subject matter. He was a working cowboy and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. A few weeks ago, he shared thoughts on some strange animal behaviors, including from buzzards. Here are two more essays from him as part of our Saturday Series. —Marvin Olasky

Buzzard Design

My writing office sits in a scenic canyon. I go there every morning to pursue my career as a maker of stories, accompanied by my loyal companion, Rosie the Red Heeler. We share the canyon with other creatures who live there: cottontail rabbits, mule deer, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, snakes, birds, mice, and an occasional Aoudad sheep. I see their tracks in the dust and the animals themselves once in a while.

The creature I see most often is a big black bird that we call the buzzard, even though bird scholars insist that the proper term is “turkey vulture.” I don’t know who is right or wrong on this issue, but if you talk about turkey vultures in the Texas Panhandle, you will draw long stares. In this essay, I will keep the local terminology.

A colony of twenty or thirty buzzards has occupied the canyon for as long as we have owned the place (since 1990). They roost at night in a big cottonwood tree in heavily-wooded Turkey Canyon, 100 yards east of our house. As far as I know, this is the only buzzard roost on the ranch, which covers nine square miles.

Like me, they are creatures of habit and routine, only they are even more zealous about their habits than I am. Buzzards never take a day off or go on a trip. They never vary their daily routine: off the roost at daylight, float around in the sky all day shopping for groceries, and return to the roost when evening shadows grow long. They have one of the worst jobs in the world, cleaning up the remains of dead animals.

One day in September, they vanish and migrate south. One day in April, they’re back. I have never kept careful records, but it might be the exact-same day every year. It makes you wonder how they keep such an accurate calendar and how they manage to find the same roosting tree on the same ranch in Texas. I mean, Texas is a big place.

In the mornings, I step out on the office porch to observe them. Depending on the hour, they will be perched on the canyon rims or flapping to gain altitude or floating a thousand feet overhead.

They are ugly up close but extremely graceful in the air, unsurpassed at soaring, a skill that involves an extremely sophisticated application of physics and engineering. I am deficient in both fields but have enough curiosity to raise questions.

As boys, Bob Wright and I built kites. It was his mother’s idea and she provided us with the raw materials and tutoring. We made a T-shaped frame of dowel rods, attached a string to all four points, glued heavy wrapping paper to the frame and string, and attached a tail of rags to the bottom.

Bob’s kites were prone to fly, mine were not. The difference lay in the way we approached design and balance. I had a creative mind that rebelled against the stern discipline of physics. I resented having to use a tape measure and pay close attention to those little lines between the inch marks. I produced kites that expressed my ideas of kite-ness … and they crashed.

Bob chose the uncreative, plodding path of an engineer (he followed directions to the letter) and his kites took flight and stayed aloft. That always struck me as unfair and unimaginative, but apparently design is important to things that soar and fly.

Six decades later, I applied the lessons of kite-building to my observations of buzzards. The burning question about buzzards (after the obvious one about why they ever got into the business they’re in) has to do with their ability to stay aloft for hours with hardly any flapping of their wings, and it all comes down to design. They are kites, perfectly designed to soar.

My amateur analysis finds two types of design in a buzzard. The first has to do with the framework: basic structure and anatomy. I assume there are certain ratios that balance wing-length to body weight, other ratios that balance the weight of the head to the weight of legs and tail. Get one of those ratios out of kilter and your buzzard will do what my kites did: crash.

There are other, more subtle design features that involve aerodynamics: the movement of air across a surface. Buzzard wings are shaped to create lift, while other parts (head, neck, body, and legs) are shaped to slip through the air without creating drag. The tail is designed to serve as a rudder and brake.

Here’s the part that fascinates me: The design of those body parts goes right down to each individual feather. Incredibly, every feather on a buzzard (or any bird) contains its own aerodynamic design and each individual feather fits the design of the whole.

Incredibly, every feather on a buzzard (or any bird) contains its own aerodynamic design and each individual feather fits the design of the whole.

Now and then I notice a buzzard whose wings are not quite symmetrical. One wing is missing some feathers out on the tip. We must assume that buzzards are constantly shedding and re-growing feathers, in the same way we are constantly shedding and re-growing skin cells. But shedding flakes of skin doesn’t affect our balance or ability to walk. When a buzzard sheds feathers, how could it not affect the delicate aerodynamic design that allows him to glide and float?

I assume that the trajectory of a Southwest Airlines 737 would be affected by small flaws on the surface of its wings, but an onboard computer would make adjustments to tabs and rudder and maintain the right course. Buzzards must have the ability to make similar adjustments, changing the shape of a wing or a tail to compensate for missing feathers.

But buzzards don’t have an onboard computer. Or a software program. Or two pilots. They have a brain but it can’t be very large, maybe the size of a peanut. (The Internet went blank on my inquiry about the size of a buzzard’s brain). Somehow the peanut-sized brain of a buzzard is able to make flight calculations and transmit orders to thousands of individual feathers on the wings and tail.

This is the same brain that keeps a calendar for migration and enables twenty buzzards to find their way back to the same cottonwood tree on the same ranch in Texas every year at the same time.

That is quite remarkable. How does a buzzard order, design, and manufacture new feathers when the old ones get frayed and, come to think of it, who built the original set of feathers with such an exquisite aerodynamic design? Who figured out the architecture of a feather?

These are some of the thoughts that come to me when I’m watching buzzards. They might seem an odd repository for miracles and mysteries, but they are.

Synchronicity

I first encountered the term “synchronicity” in a book by Carl Jung, and again when I was doing some reading on the implications of quantum physics. I make no claim to understand the math behind quantum physics, but the implications are truly amazing—that the “reality” we experience in everyday life is a small part of what is there.

My understanding of synchronicity is: a series of “coincidences” that seem to have some meaning that can’t be explained through our normal understanding of cause-and-effect. We are conditioned to ignore synchronicities because they don’t fit our notions of how things should behave. I think an important law of human behavior is that we see what we think we see, and usually find only what we’re looking for.

I think an important law of human behavior is that we see what we think we see, and usually find only what we’re looking for.

I want to share a series of seemingly unrelated events that might qualify as a synchronicity, or several synchronicities.

Last December, I was listening to a channel on satellite radio that was playing classical, sacred Christmas music—the real thing, not Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty. I heard a piece that I hadn’t heard before and thought it astonishingly beautiful. It was sung a capella by a very good choir. I was able to write down “O Magnum Mysterium, by Morten Lauridsen.” I looked it up on Amazon and ordered a CD with that piece on it. A day or two later, I was talking to a friend, Marian Freeland, and she said, “Oh, by the way, I have ordered a DVD for you, about a composer named Morten Lauridsen. I saw the cover of the DVD in Virginia and thought the picture of Lauridsen looked exactly like you.” I was surprised by this coincidence and asked how she knew about Lauridsen. She had heard “O Magnum Mysterium” sung by the Patrick Henry College chorale. I have visited PHC three times and have heard their chorale perform. Nikki Georgacakis, who works for us, is a PHC graduate, and I had already recommended that she buy a copy of “O Magnum Mysterium.” Several days later, my CD of Lauridsen’s choral music arrived, and I listened to “O Magnum Mysterium” over and over in my pickup. It struck me as sublime. I liked the piece so much that I wrote it into a screenplay, “Yellow Rose.” It just seemed to fit the mood of the story. A week later, Marian’s DVD arrived, a documentary about Lauridsen. The cover showed a photograph of him with a gray beard. Yes, he did resemble me, but I thought he looked even more like my brother Charles. I ordered a copy of the DVD and had it sent to Charles and his wife Brenda, who is a violinist. I didn’t know if they were familiar with Lauridsen, but thought it likely, since they live in Portland and Lauridsen spends summers on the coast of Oregon. Brenda was thrilled with the gift, which arrived just as they were celebrating their tenth anniversary. And yes, she was very familiar with Lauridsen. Brenda said that when Charles saw the composer’s photograph on the cover of the DVD case, he said, “He looks like our father.” A month later, I happened upon a book I bought fifteen years ago but had never read: Synchronicity. I have been reading it in the afternoons. Had I not done so, I doubt that I would have placed this series of “coincidences” together or thought of them as synchronicities.

One of the reasons we tend to ignore synchronicities is that, while they seem to have some kind of meaning, we don’t understand the chain of causality or how to interpret the “meaning.” The events seem related, somehow, but we don’t know why, nor can we add them up and come out with a simple explanation.

I have read that people who study synchronicity have a way of grading them by their levels of meaning. Three or four levels of meaning are considered significant. The one I have presented here seems to have at least nine levels.

So this series of events suggests some kind of meaning or relationship. What is it? I don’t have the slightest idea. The two defining characteristics of synchronicities seem to be 1) we are usually not aware of them, and 2) once we begin to notice, we don’t know what they mean.

Even though quantum theory has been around for almost a century, our day-to-day perception of reality is firmly grounded on Newtonian mechanics. When two balls collide, we can predict the results. This seems to be the same perception of reality that guides the behavior of our dogs. When I throw the ball and Dixie can’t find it, she doesn’t assume that it vanished into another dimension. She knows it’s there and looks until she finds it. That is a Newtonian response.

On the other hand, an English microbiologist named Rupert Sheldrake wrote an interesting book called How Do Dogs Know When Their Masters Are Coming Home? It suggests that dogs, and perhaps other animals, can sense certain things that, according to Newtonian mechanics, they shouldn’t be able to sense: earthquakes, tidal waves, the approaching death of their master.

Here’s another example. After sleeping for two hours in my pickup, Mark’s dog Carlos knows that, when I turn onto Parker Street in Amarillo, he is almost home. Coming the other way, when we reach the barn at the ranch, he knows that we are one mile away from Dixie and Daisy. He becomes excited, almost frantic, with anticipation. He pays no attention to other barns or houses on the two-hour drive.

I don’t understand “dog ESP” or synchronicity but find them fascinating. They should remind us that there is much to learn, if we pay attention.


John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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HANNAH.

Thank you, Rudy49. I  had no idea that my musing (in the second comment way up there) would trigger such a reaction. I've been out of the loop for a while, simply enjoying Christmas. Returning  to leisurely scroll through the comments (30! Good grief!), I came to the same conclusion regarding DaleCutter: "... your snarcky and condescending presentation made it difficult to want to even read your comments much less follow up on them." 

DaleCutler

"I am, btw, not it means that much, a 69 yo retired family physician (MD from UTMB - Galveston)."

Do you know what kind of logical fallacy that is, to use it in an argument? (It is right up there with the name-dropping that you falsely accused me of.)

(I am your senior, if you will recall, not that that is a factor, either, in determining the truth of the vastness of God's providence, and could cite some credentials, as well.)

DaleCutler

Trigger warning: this will not be fun, especially for militant YECists of the Ham variety (it is old with respect to this internet age – there are some dead links): 

When Ego and Creation Science Meet: A History of the Answers in Genesis  Split

DaleCutler

"My current thought is not to post any more about this." That is probably wise.

Bix

Dale, I do not understand why (based on a plain reading of the Bible) you would say "there was no end to the seventh day." Back to Ex 20, God says that people are to labor six days and rest on the seventh, because that is what God did - work on creating for six days and rest on the seventh day. And then repeat. And then repeat.

In regard to delineating a day and night before there was a sun, one could ask when night is for God. Is it Vatican time? UN time? He has no day or night, nor past, present or future. So when he defined what He did in Genesis 1, "evening and morning, first day, second day" He was telling our story to us in terms that were clear and definable.

My current thought is not to post any more about this. To anyone who might be reading this, if you have any questions, I would encourage you to first study and think about the plain words of the Scriptures - Genesis 1 through 3, the things that Jesus said about the OT, Romans 5 and 8, etc.

DaleCutler

I think Ann Voskamp helps us to that end in her excellent book on thanksgiving, One Thousand Gifts. (Her poetic prose takes a little getting used to, but it is worth persisting. BabylonBee did a piece on her, and I'm sure she thought it was a real hoot. XD  ; - )

DaleCutler

Then criminal forensics are no good and murder investigations should be halted and crime labs closed. I will plead the good company of C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller and much first person experience with God's providence, even on the level of molecular mutations, albeit carcinogenic ones: Nephrectomy.

DaleCutler

Spot on. God's providence is a delightful mystery, but no accident!

Gage

Thanks for this article. I've been thinking lately that we do live in the midst of a miraculous world, though we tend to think of the dust and struggle instead. Any flower, any insect, (and a zillion other things) are miracles. All the things that have to go right for anything to be alive is stunning. Living things are not the result of a cosmic accident of chemistry under the right conditions, and I know something about chemistry. I think we'll all look back in wonder that we went through life so rarely awe-struck.

Bix

Yes, Dale, I am happy to confess that I am in a deep rut of trusting in the plain reading of the Scriptures more than anything else. I am, btw, not it means that much, a 69 yo retired family physician (MD from UTMB - Galveston).

Romans 5 says that "just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men...For if by the one man's trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift overflowed to the many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ."

Sin and DEATH entered the world through the one man Adam, and eternal life comes through the second Adam (I Cor 15), Jesus Christ. 

I love to talk about and imagine a new heaven and a new earth! I believe in those things in a very real and literal sense. And I also think it is a dangerous thing to disconnect those promises in Isaiah and Revelation and elsewhere from their foundation in Genesis. If suffering (Gen 3) and death did not come from the one man Adam ... why should I trust the book that tells me about the second Adam?

DaleCutler

Coming fairly recently to understand a modicum of evolutionary science and to accept it as legitimate, I have adopted a label of "evolutionary providentialist". (It is no longer so much the Darwinian theory of evolution as it is the neutral theory of evolution, the neutral drift component being huge compared to single mutations, along with population genetics.) God designed evolution and providentially intervened, and still does. The existence of design in creation is intuitive and rightly so, but design is not a provable scientific theory, as IDists and the Discovery Institute would have us believe.

DaleCutler

 

YECism also belittles the import of Psalm 8:4, not only because of the vastness of the size of the universe, but also because of the vastness of its antiquity.

"What is man, that you are mindful of him?[!]"

 

Try this on for size (it's kind of fun, if you are not closed to it), by a Christian physicist, a real one: A Small Big Universe

 

Bix

Dale, yes, I know what Frances Collins believes.

But I will stick with the Scripture. Genesis 1: evening and morning, first day, second day, etc. Jewish days start in the evening. Days are numbered. Seventh day, God rested. Exocus 20, ten commandments, seventh day is holy and different because on that [literal one] day in history God rested. Jesus, Matt 19, "He who created them in the beginning made them male and female." Evolution's view of life origins would be a single-celled asexual form of life.

Hugh Ross and Frances Collins would say there were several billion years of Earth history, and then at some point, perhaps several hundred thousand years ago?, God chose two "pre-humans" and breathed His Spirit into them, and they became, perhaps, the real people Adam and Eve, and it is at that point that the Bible becomes a little more literal and real. Mostly. HR and FC would say that it is spiritual death and spiritual separation from God that is the important thing. That death that preceeded Adam was not significant.

But in Romans 8 it is the "whole creation has been groaning together" in the bondage of corruption and awaits its redemption along with "God's children."

But a few paragraphs by me will not likely convince you. There are whole books by science PhDs that deal with these subjects. My main point is that a plain reading of the Bible, without the pre-suppositions of billions of years of time, can lead one to understand and accept it as it is written and as Jesus taught it.

Bix

Dale C., in regard to "proveable scientific theory," as a physician, we evaluate a good study in regard to whether or not a medicine works as being: prospective (not retrospective), placebo-controlled, double-blinded, adequate in size, and reproducible (by another neutral party). At the very least, good science has to be testable and reproducible. Nothing that happened in the past, whether from the point of view of a Christian who believes in the letter of the Old and New Testaments (as I do) or from the point of view of a sceptic can be "provable science." My understanding of the agnostic sceptic when he says that his theory is more "scientific" than mine is that it just does not in any way include or need or scknowledge God or anything supernatural. So, voila! it is "more scientific" than mine!