John D. MacDonald: Nature’s tricks of interdependence

The Florida-based mystery writer John D. MacDonald, who like his funny counterpart Carl Hiassen unabashedly displays a wide streak of caring for the land and the sea on which he lives, tells a story about the way of buzzards in The Lonely Silver Rain. This is the 21st and last of his great series of Travis McGee novels.  

His flinty anti-hero McGee has, with much work and no small share of brilliance, tracked down a wealthy client's  missing boat, which unhappily turns out to have been the scene of a triple murder. McGee is the first to have found it, except for the buzzards. 

…the closer I got to her, the more disreputable she looked — like an elegant lady who had stepped into the wrong bar on New Year's Eve. 

ThelonelysilverrainA lot of her varnish had been sprayed lavatory green and it had begun to flake off…a sudden shift of the breeze changed the look of the vessel and the shape of the day. It brought that thick ripe sweet stink of death and decay. I killed the motor and curved the skiff away from the stink, and as I did so, I noticed three buzzards in a dead mangrove which stood taller than the rest. Black sentinels defeated by the geography of a cruiser. They were never going to flap down to the cockpit deck, waddle down the steps to the feast. You seldom see them out on the islands, except after a red tide has washed the big dead fish onto the mud beaches. I hvae a friend who disbelieved the experts who say birds have no sense of smell, and so one summer out in the ranchlands north of Sarasota, he tested them. Before danw he would put dead meat under a white wooden box, and spread several identical boxes around the area with nothing under them. The buzzards would circle above them for a time, and then would always come down to clumsy landings aorund the baited box, ignoring the others. 

And then he realized that maybe it wasn't a keen sense of smell but instead remarkable eyesight. The carrion flies always arrive first. They have a shiny metallic-looking blue-green abdomen, and maybe the buzzards can spot the glintings from a thousand feet on high. Nature has many little tricks which reinforce the interdependence of the species. 

Yes, plausible. On the story about condors I did a few weeks back, I learned that condors find their meals in part by looking down on crows and buzzards from above, and preying on their carrion finds. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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