We’ve all glanced out our back window at home to appreciate the view for a moment but this woman got a shock when she saw two large vultures sitting on her fence with wings spread wide as if bringing an omen of something yet to come. The pair sits still, wings spread, for several moments while the woman zooms in clearly on them. One vulture finally breaks the synchronized stretching and hops along the fence, while the other remains steadfastly still.
Ornithomancy, also known as augury, is the divination practice of reading omens from the actions of birds and is often associated with ancient Greek and Roman societies, but it was Egypt that had specific reverence for vultures. The goddess Nekhbet was depicted in the form of a vulture and was the patron deity of Upper Egypt. Her iconography was important to the regal line, shared with the Lower Egyptian counterpart Wadjet who was represented as a cobra. The vulture and cobra head combination was used in royal headdresses to symbolize the united Egypt under one Pharoah’s rule, and is most well known for being depicted on the Mask of Tutankhamun.
Interestingly, the vultures referenced from the European and African areas of the globe are known as Old World vultures and are entirely different than the New World vultures found in the Americas, which are an example of convergent evolution of similar traits among different species that fill the same ecological niche. Which brings us to the Mayan use of vultures in their iconography throughout their pre-Columbian codices.
The ancient Mayans also associated vultures with the gods and was seen as a messenger between the deities. Black vultures were connected to death and were often depicted as birds of prey rather than scavengers, with some glyphs even depicting attacks on humans. The glyphic representation for the two vultures is distinctly different and only the deific messenger had religious connotations, which has led some to believe the glyph may actually be referencing a cryptid such as a thunderbird or living fossil of a thought to be extinct flying species. As vultures rarely attack humans, these ancient depictions of bird attacks lend credence in the minds of some that we don’t have the full story on these ancient avian symbols.
Scientifically, the explanation for why vultures perch with their wings spread is actually just a form of thermoregulation used to adjust the body temperature of the birds.