The case of being too fat to fly

Black Vultures hang around a large alligator at Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, Florida.

By Bruce Stambaugh

As the plane sat on the tarmac waiting permission to take off, I filled my idle time peering through the thick porthole. Meadowlarks chased one another and American Kestrels swooped for rodents above the broad grassy areas between the concrete avenues.

I watched other jetliners defy both logic and gravity, race down the runways and lift into the air. Aerodynamically, their appearance belies the fact that they actually can get airborne. The jumbo jets especially seemed too fat to fly. Yet, they taxied, throttled and despite their bulkiness climbed into the sky effortlessly.

When the words “too fat to fly” came to mind, I flashed back a month to our time in Florida. My wife and I and our good friends had taken a boat tour on a lake at Myakka River State Park. The guide filled us in on the unusual appearance of hundreds of vultures gathered all along the shorelines. Most were Black Vultures with a few Turkey Vultures thrown in, their red baldheads making them conspicuous.

We had gone to the park to see alligators, shorebirds, birds of prey, and to learn of the local floral and fauna. The congregations of vultures were an unexpected bonus, present everywhere. To the locals, the flocks of homely birds were a necessary nuisance, even roosting on campers and cars.

Their appearance was easily explained. Prior to our arrival in the Sunshine State, which was mostly cloudy and cool while we were there, an extended cold snap had settled in.

Between the below freezing temperatures and the lack of sunshine, both the water and air temperatures had dropped well below normal for a sustained amount of time. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico had registered 49.6 degrees Fahrenheit, amazingly cool for that expansive tropical body of water.

Citrus and produce farmers fought the cold conditions by misting their nearly ripe crops. The cold temps effectively coated the fruit with ice, saving most of the delicate commodities. Fishermen had no such option. The unusually cold water killed tens of thousands of fish.

Upper Lake Myakka was no exception. The guide said that at least 30,000 fish had died from the shallow lake’s much reduced water temperature. Of course, the dead fish soon washed ashore and the throngs of vultures voluntarily arrived to clean up the mess. Their sense of smell is truly amazing. The fishy smell we sensed was equally amazing, even weeks after the big kill.

The impressive, black birds had cleaned up most of the carcasses by the time we took the tour. Nevertheless, the pungent odor lingered, as did the vultures.

Days after the fish kill, park officials noticed something odd about the vultures. The unsightly creatures just lay around as if they were sick. Concerned, biologists easily caught and examined a few of the birds to find the cause of their lethargy.

After running multiple tests, the scientists came to a very logical conclusion. The vultures had eaten so many dead fish they were simply too fat to fly or even walk for that matter. All they needed to do was to stop eating, and they would be fine.

By now, it was our plane’s turn to take off. I double-checked my seatbelt, readied myself for the runway sprint and sudden ascent into the cloudless sky. But with the overstuffed vultures on my mind, I didn’t want to take any chances. I said a silent prayer that this particular bird wasn’t too fat to fly.

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