The turkey vulture can be seen in most of North America circling or soaring in thermal updrafts. It is successful in its ecological niche, and plays an important role, but I doubt it is often named as a favorite bird. Forget for a moment its association with death and carrion, though, and it may appear majestic. How does it make you feel to see it surrounded by vibrant color?
Flight also evokes strong feelings. Dreams of flying are common, at least from accounts of those awake. It’s easy to identify with a bird, perhaps because their anatomy is similar enough to trigger our mirror neurons.
When you watch someone throw a ball, some of the same neurons that fire in your brain when you throw a ball fire as well, as if rehearsing or learning the motion. The nerve impulses actually extend from your brain to motor neurons in your hand and arms, and a small but measurable muscle activation occurs just from observing someone throw a ball.
Mirror neurons seem to be one reason we can learn or improve physical activities from watching them (as in golf videos), and it’s one of the biological sources of empathy: seeing someone hurt their arm makes us wince and grab your arm. We can imagine being the other person, in part because we feel and perform their actions without consciously knowing.
Does seeing these vultures soaring make you feel, at some level, the thrill of flight? Do you empathize with a vulture?
Deer are one of the few species that is actually more plentiful in North America now than they were when Europeans arrived. Our penchant for creating open spaces for homesteading and farming led us to reduce the forested area of the United States by about 1,000,000 square kilometers (~386,000 square miles) between 1610 and now. As a result of increased grazing lands and reduced numbers of predators, deer populations exploded.
I see deer more often than not when I hike in coastal California, but it’s still a treat to lock gazes with one and observe the rhythm of its breathing, and the twitch of its ears. Children are especially enthralled with animals; perhaps the millions of years we spent as hunter-gatherers tuned our perception of other species in ways that haven’t entirely faded in 50,000 years of agrarian life.