The plane had just landed when the unmistakable smell of smoke began to waft throughout the fuselage. As the aircraft taxied on the runway of São Luís’s Marechal da Cunha Machado airport, the passengers on LATAM flight 3419 fidgeted in their seats. A minute earlier, they had heard a loud whacking sound, followed by a sudden crack, coming from just outside their windows.
A bird had lodged itself within the plane’s turbine during takeoff, impeding the rotation of its fan and cracking its shaft. Within seconds, the entire turbine ceased functioning. From a distance, residents of São Luís took photos; they later recounted the sight of thick smoke flowing out of the plane’s engine.
“I saw a vulture fly right into the turbine,” claimed one bystander. “And then it was like, poof, all black smoke!”
Modern planes, and push-button pilots, make it possible to glide a compromised fuselage back down to earth, and flight 3419 was no different: the aircraft touched back down on the runway only fifteen minutes or so after it had first embarked for bluer skies.
The incident would be registered by Infraero, the body that administers Brazil’s main commercial airports, as an official bird strike. Bird collisions are a near constant threat to the aviation industry, and Brazil is the site of a disproportionate number. In 2019, the country recorded almost 2,500.
The unfortunate creature involved in the bird strike on flight 3419 was a black vulture (Coragyps atratus), a carrion feeder that pilots and air traffic specialists have long considered a collision threat given both its size and flight behavior. Of Brazil’s animal-aircraft incidents in 2020, for instance, more than 20 percent involved vultures of one species or the other; eight percent involved black vultures. They are truly everywhere, it seems, singing “then destroy[ing]/the night/one flutter/at a time,” as poet Lawrence Welsh once put it.
Even discounting the danger they pose to aircraft, vultures are widely seen as harbingers of death and decay. Yet they play an important role in the human, built environment.
At a putrid landfill outside the urban center of Tefé, a town in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, hundreds of vultures circle overhead. After several attempts at counting them, I give up; there are too many. “They are the kings of this place,” says Raimundo Oliveira, a landfill employee. He looks up at the swirling birds while straddling a dilapidated earthmoving machine.
These carrion-eaters fly in committees, or venues, and when they are not airborne, camp out on large stands of refuse, packed together like feather-clad beggars in a breadline. With their sooty plumage and crusty skin, black vultures — the majority species here — fit right in with their rank surroundings. Boasting a wingspan of around five feet and the ability to fly at speeds surpassing Usain Bolt in his prime, they are mostly habituated to the many collectors, sifters, and other (bipedal) scavengers who spend quality time at the dump. Gazing, waiting — they will make their move when the time is right.
Like landfills in many parts of the world, Tefé’s refuse is never covered, which lends it the feel of an open feeding area. Covering a dumpsite with soil or other material is expensive, unaffordable for municipalities like Tefé. The result is an extensive ecological laboratory, including eight acres upon which the mound sits, hosting a collection of tropical animals, venomous snakes, and exotic, tropical passerines. Through it all, the black vulture predominates, living up to its appellate as a social bird. Tefé’s trash mound is essentially a rookery and nursery for a bird evolved to eat the flesh of the dead and dying but now thrives on the abundance of trash. Here, where human-coordinated management is absent, vultures are efficient managers of waste.
“Look, nobody in the public likes vultures: they eat dead things and they aren’t pretty,” says Dr. Weber Novaes, a Brazilian specialist in urban wildlife interactions in the Amazon. He pauses for emphasis as we chat over the phone, “But they are possibly the most important birds in the Amazon.”
Black vulture ecologist and USDA wildlife scientist Dr. Travis DeVault puts it another way: “There are some adverse effects of large quantities of BLVU [black vultures] — although I stress that they are, on balance, very beneficial in terms of providing ecosystem services.” In other words, vultures are a help to humans, feasting on carrion that might otherwise rot and attract harmful pests. For each story of a potential airline collision resulting from the birds, they cycle millions of tons of nutrients and other material through the food web, eating dog feces and fish bones with equal gusto. The average Brazilian household throws away 353g of trash per day; the average black vulture consumes 140g a day. Not all household waste is edible — although Coragyps atratus does seem to have an affection for plastic, based on the shreds of grocery bags I’ve seen being gobbled up, in pieces or whole — over many hours of observing them. But if even a quarter of the “edible” garbage bounty finds its way into a vulture’s gullet, it might explain why Plutarch termed them “the most righteous of birds.”
Research shows they are also vital in preventing diseases, including the zoonotic pathogens that are the source of so much fear in our era of COVID-19. Though it’s impossible to assess just how many diseases can be prevented, tests have shown worldwide decreases in incidences of brucellosis, anthrax, and cholera as a result of the bird’s worldwide populations. The vulture’s bald head, unlike the feather or fur-clad dome of many other avian species, bakes in the sun, reducing the spread of the kind of disease that dark and moist conditions often incubate. Finally, their powerful stomach acid breaks down harmful pathogens and persists as a potent brew when excreted. One wouldn’t want to eat off the sidewalk where this residue collected, but it’s arguably a lot more sanitary than the festerous meat rotting in the equatorial sun right next to, say, a water main.
Roughly 70 percent of the Brazilian Amazon’s human population lives in cities. In metropolises like Manaus and Belém, and even in bustling towns like Tefé and Parintins, the rural idyll of Charles Wagley’s Amazon Town seems far away. Interactions between humans and wildlife don’t take place solely in forests — but inside buildings, at downtown intersections, along riverbanks, and up high in the troposphere. In the most human of environments, the vulture has become a keystone species.
I found Izete Ramos seated at her desk in Tefé’s Secretariat of Education, where she was cycling through a spreadsheet on her computer. We’d decided to meet in her office so she could show me the plans for the city of Tefé’s proposed covered landfill, a project that had recently been foisted upon the city by the federal Attorney General of the Union. The impetus: the increased prevalence of black vultures, and with it, the risk of another plane collision.
Ramos had been involved with the planning and implementation of previous directives related to the creation of covered landfills in Tefé and elsewhere, which despite the apparent dearth of municipal revenue to build them, was something the federal government recognized as a problem long ago. Curiously, Ramos was no longer part of the environmental secretariat but rather led the city’s book and educational material purchasing department. In a special election a few years ago, she was required to leave her erstwhile post. According to her, it had to do with political optics: Tefé’s government had been claiming it would buy land she and her husband had owned for twenty years several kilometers outside the city in order to build a landfill, and she and the mayor both claimed it was important for Ramos to lie low, out of fears such a project could be perceived of as…improper.
She tells me the situation for landfills is dire; that the Amazon is an inherently polluted region. When Ramos was the environmental secretary, her goal was to make Tefé a clean, thriving place, she says, one that would attract tourists of all stripes. Like many I encounter in local government, she is surprisingly candid about conditions on the ground.
“Look at the lake, it’s disgusting. People just throw trash away all over the place and dirty up the water like it’s a toilet.” She shows me pictures from an ambitious report on an effort to revamp the city’s waste management system from three years back. “It’s not so much what the city can do; it’s about making people responsible. Because they aren’t.”
The report was completed a few years ago and handed to officials as an action item after a series of lawsuits filed by the federal attorney general and the Amazonas state prosecutor. Per the document, the regional solid waste problem is so dismal it must be dealt with as an “existential threat” to the town. Other documents I obtained from the state prosecutor’s office show that Tefé has made good-faith efforts to build a covered waste site, but claims it has neither the financial resources, the labor, nor the technical expertise to see such a project through to completion on a quick timeline in the middle of the Amazon Basin. The city points to its population of 60,000 and growing as one explanation for the explosion in uncovered trash, a number that doesn’t truly account for the swell in population as merchants, rural migrants running errands, rainforest researchers, and others pass through this urban hub constantly.
The proposed site for a new, covered landfill is located in a distant part of the main agricultural strip of the municipality. Ramos decides to take me there, with a driver, using the city’s environmental secretariat — her old employer’s — vehicle. In this region, the tree growth is noticeably older, if still heavily cut back, and sinuous trails wind in and out of the greenery like veins, often bisected by a series of small paths (“made by little critters,” our driver affirms).
We get to an area that seems particularly overgrown, and the driver tells us we must descend, that he’ll pick us up in a few hours. We face some of the thickest secondary growth I’ve seen in the “urban” Amazon since I’ve come to know it — the only path is forward, a slog through the mud and rain. Ramos and I walk past several stands of trees and clearings; cassava fields and fruiting forests of varying composition. At one point the rain becomes torrential and we have to stop.
After three kilometers of jungle hiking, we reach our destination: a large swath of degraded land that was once home to a massive banana and cassava field and is now just barren pasture for a few misgrafted cattle. There is no sign of a landfill in the works — not even a hole to speak of, other than a latrine for the family living in an aluminum-sided shack nearby. It’s reminiscent of the headlines that often emanate out of the Amazon, where it’s not uncommon to hear of fake land titles being sold left and right. According to most of the estimates, plans for a covered landfill require an expenditure of at least $200,000, and would include four kilometers of two-lane asphalt road, plus a handful of staging areas for heavy machinery. It would also require a continuous supply of workers, including 24-hour security. For all her knowledge of the project, when I tell Ramos that, according to my reporting, the federal attorney general mandated the landfill here be completed by 2020, she seemed flabbergasted by the timeline.
Some Amazonian cities are notorious for their predominantly vulture-related aircraft collisions. In 2019, prior to air travel grounding to a pandemic halt, Belém, Manaus, Macapá, and Boa Vista registered multiple collisions or near-collisions. Many have been forced to close for a time, including airports in the cities of Parintins and Coari. (Their most recent issues have been with quero-quero [V. chilensis] and garceta [E. thula] birds, not vultures.)
“There’s only so much we can do,” Tefé’s Vice Mayor Maria Gean Celani says in what’s normally her boss’s office, inside the only historic building left in a town in a constant state of construction flux. The décor is resplendent in national and military iconography, interspersed with the clichéd rainforest bestiary (jaguars are ubiquitous). “This is a large city and we don’t have the equipment to collect everything, nor do we have a population that recognizes the problem of birds. They’ll be here forever.” She entertains questions for a few more minutes, before tapping her lacquered blue nails percussively on the tabletop. “But these are questions that carry over from the previous administration, so again, there’s not much we’re responsible for.”
Accountability is hard to come by in much of rural Brazil, where patronage and petty corruption are as plentiful as mosquitos. Brazilian researchers commonly include the Amazon region as the country’s most or second-most malfeasant at the municipal level. But it’s striking that given the scale of the problem, an elected official would choose to cite a lack of trash trucks and an irresponsible citizenry, as if the matter were as axiomatic as the laws of nature.
It is true that the “grand vulture problem” as the vice mayor termed it, is one that in many respects does not register with the local populace. Throughout my time in the region, locals expressed disgust about vultures, but it was clear they were reluctant to embrace measures that might reduce the birds’ presence.
When I spoke to the former vice mayor of Parintins, Tony Medeiros, he told me the proper disposal of waste from residential and commercial use is simply not a daily consideration for most denizens. In his reading, many fail to understand how their behavior at home can have consequences beyond it, including for the regional aviation industry.
“Our local populace just isn’t that educated,” Medeiros told me. “There’s so much we have to overcome in order to do very basic things, but we are trying and trying and trying again. Many people here can’t even read.”
On one sunny afternoon in November 2017, along a forlorn plaza in the heart of Tefé, two workers, dressed in brightly colored caps and impeccably pressed T-shirts, informed passersby of the need to store trash and to keep as much organic material out of plain sight as possible. This, so that waste management trucks can do their jobs properly.
“This is important, my friend,” one worker pleads in the tropical sun. “Open trash affects everyone.”
“But why then won’t the trash collectors pick up the garbage when they say they will?”
The volunteers seem unable or unwilling to provide satisfying answers.
Urban planning, waste collection, and an overall disinclination to enforce regulations on the books make it difficult for local people to imagine anything they do has much weight. Tony Medeiros from Parintins is equally dismissive.
“Most of these people have only lived in cities the last couple of generations. They came to the city; the city didn’t come to them,” he scoffs. “What do you expect?”
According to the USDA’s Dr. Bradley Blackwell, who I spoke to on the phone, bird collisions “have been a normal feature of the aviation industry from the beginning of time.” A review of the Brazilian air traffic safety agency’s reports from the last few years reveals that the vulture is not most prone to collisions; that special commendation is reserved for the quero-quero, which is, on average, involved in almost three times as many incidents. It’s also much more of a looker by most human standards (Pablo Neruda once wrote its “nuptial wings’ fan was priceless,” while his poem about black vultures refers to them as “God’s spy” in “search of sinners.”)
Master Sergeant Dalson Trigueiro Lima, of Brazil’s Center for the Investigation and Prevention of Aeronautic Accidents, calls this one of the biggest misconceptions amongst those who monitor bird activity: that vultures and other trash-attracted birds are the primary pests policy-makers need to focus on in order to keep civil aviation from running smoothly. “Vultures aren’t the problem here,” he points to the skies emphatically, “it’s anything that’s near a plane.” In 2019, Lima’s hometown of Manaus had almost as many reported incidents of collisions with the diminutive bacurau bird (H. albicollis) as with any vultures — most of them ingested in plane engines, as it turns out.
As the planet seems to be roiled in flames and losing biodiversity at a rapid clip, vultures are as opportunistic as ever, with their populations growing in both South and North America. (This in contrast to declining vulture populations and threats of extinction to other species, particularly in Asia and Africa.) Black vulture populations are expanding at rates more rapid than that of humans on turf both species share, which makes continued conflict all but inevitable. But what would happen if there were more actual value placed on the things vultures do so well, like eating trash and carcasses and defending against disease?
Izete Ramos echoed this as we walked to the new landfill site. “Listen,” she says, twirling a big stick-like vine she’s managed to scavenge from the ground, “these vultures are…everywhere. We are the only ones to blame.” She points to a group of nine of the birds and then admonishes, “But it’s people from the outside who are the ones telling us we’ve got a problem. These birds are disgusting, but they could be worse: they could be bats.”
In the sweltering heat and chaotic roadways of the urban Amazon, it’s possible that the vulture has come to represent mutualism in the traditional ecological definition of the word, or at worst commensalism. Mutualism describes a case when two species benefit from each other in close interaction (often when one is inside the other, like some bacteria inside our gut, although not always). Commensalism is a case where one organism benefits from the relationship and the other remains largely unharmed or minimally affected.
Some ecologists have in fact called for new forms of “human-vulture mutualisms,” in places like the Amazon where the birds are here to stay. Tefé Lake, despite Izete Ramos’s disapproval, has a pristine beauty punctuated only by the passing of motorboats and the occasional soaring of languid vultures. At a lunch table overlooking the expanse of water, Emiliano Ramalho, a zoologist at the Sustainable Development Institute Mamirauá, near Tefé, reflects on the role vultures serve.
“Have you ever seen a really dirty road here?” he asks, pointing out how clean they are relative to the amount of feces (mostly dog), food-based garbage, and other solid waste typically strewn about communities in rural Latin America. “The answer is ‘no,’ because the birds have taken care of everything; the city has no hope of taking care of itself.” In this light, the vultures’ general unsightliness, and perhaps the occasional aircraft collision, is a small price to pay. Ramalho is unequivocal: “They’re the best thing that ever happened to the Amazon town.”