In fiction, when a character, especially one wandering through a Thirsty Desert, seems on the brink of death, vultures may be seen circling overhead or perching menacingly nearby, waiting for their prey to collapse and die. In Real Life, vultures (and other large birds) do circle, but it can often be related to how they fly. Thermals are columns of hot air that these birds use to rise. Not to be confused with Circling Birdies even though vultures are birds.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
- There was a commercial that had the Energizer Bunny going through a desert while vultures start circling overhead. Eventually they collapse to the ground in exhaustion while the bunny, of course, keeps going, and going, and...
- Although it's not a direct example, the sequence in End of Evangelion when the MP Evas are air dropped into the geofront is obviously intended to invoke this.
- In Voltron episode "Footsteps in the Forest of Fear", while Allura, Nanny and the maids were picking berries they notice some birds flew away and decided to head back, but were too late as they were surrounded by Lotor's monster trees. Later, the rest of the Voltron Force spotted birds circling above the forest, knowing it means danger.
- In the EC Comics story "Carrion Death!" (Shock SuspenStories #9), a fugitive trudges through the desert for four days, handcuffed to the corpse of a state trooper he killed. The fugitive sees the vultures as his only chance to rid himself of the dead weight attached to his right arm, but after they have stripped the corpse clean, he finds out that they do eat live flesh, too.
- In the Round Robin Comic Book DC Challenge, Aquaman is stranded in the desert, dying of dehydration. (This is the "can only be away from water 60 minutes" version of Aquaman.) Vultures are circling. What can he do? Wait until one lands and then open it up and drink its blood - since blood is like 98% water, it counts.
- The Lion King Adventures features an example of this in Growing Pains. In this story, Simba keeps rapidly ageing, eventually falling unconscious in the middle of the flatlands due to becoming too old. The vultures close in on him, circling overhead. He just manages to claw his way to safety under the shade of a tree.
- Ice Age 2: The Meltdown had talking vultures circle the various creatures trying to escape the flood waiting for some to fail, leaving them with dinner.
- In The Lion King, vultures swoop down on an exhausted Simba, but are dispersed by Timon and Pumbaa "bowling for buzzards".
- Two vultures follow the Queen in her Wicked Witch disguise in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as she goes to the cottage to get Snow White, and their presence alerts the Woodland Creatures that there is something seriously wrong about the "peddler woman" with her basket of apples. In the end, the vultures were not after Snow White at all, but after the Queen, and as she falls to her doom, the vultures slowly circle down after her. Though they may be aware the Queen was trying to poison Snow White when they seem eager as the Queen was offering Snow White.
- They're not circling, but in Airplane a bunch of vultures perch over the Heroes as they prepare to crash-land.
- The Andromeda Strain (1971). When the SCOOP team approaches the town of Piedmont they see buzzards circling over the town - a Foreshadowing of the dead bodies they will find there.
- During the animals' soccer game in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, vultures serve as medics, waiting on the sidelines for the referee (Mr. Brown) to be trampled by the players. A Running Gag is made of them rushing into the field to "treat" Mr. Brown, only to be waved away after he turns out to be alive.
- Subverted in Capricorn One. One of the astronauts being hunted by government agents in the desert, delirious from heat and thirst, thinks he sees "birds" circling above him—and in the camera shot depicting his blurred vision, it does look like vultures circling. Turns out to be those Black Helicopters though.
- Happens in Carry On In The Legion as the troops march across the desert from the dry oasis.
- In Conan the Barbarian (1982), one vulture actually tries to peck the crucified Conan. Conan bites its neck and chokes it.
- Cartoon vultures appear out of nowhere directly after a character is killed in Terror Toons.
- In the Dragaera novels, jhereg take the place of vultures for purposes of this trope. Loiosh and Rocza, seen circling Vlad's unconscious body in Tiassa, are mistaken for this by some guardsmen.
- Dune. After Liet-Kynes is left in the desert to die, he sees hawks (the Dune equivalent of vultures) circling overhead.
- These are the first clue to the fate of Duke Jared's army in High Deryni. It isn't pretty.
- Sard Harker: During his trek through the wilderness, Harker has an encounter with a trio of vultures, which first perch menacingly then circle overhead.
- In The Yearling, this is how Jody finds the orphaned fawn. The vultures are circling over the carcass of its mother.
- Used on Bones at least a couple of times
- Once when the heroes were looking for some remains and saw vultures circling, so they knew that that's where the remains were.
- Once when they were lost in the desert and saw vultures circling over them.
- All three branches of the CSI franchise have used the spot-the-vultures technique of finding human remains. CSI: NY: In "No Good Deed", vultures circling a body on a rooftop lead investigators to it after a long search.
- Dinosaur Revolution: In the Protoceratops story. Well, it's more like circling Azhdarchids...
- On The Muppet Show, before performing the famous "Telephone Pole Bit", Fozzie tells Scooter that "we are gonna die" (meaning the skit is going to bomb), and as Scooter asks what makes him think that, the camera focuses on two vultures looking down on them.
- An episode of Tales from the Crypt (inspired by the "Carrion Death" example in comic books) ended with an escaped convict paralyzed in the middle of the desert, about to be eaten alive by vultures.
- Ego Likeness: The first verse of Aviary.
In come the vultures/Through dusty air/To take you down and/Tear the ribbons from your hair
- In the video for "White America" by Eminem, vultures are circling around the corpse of a man who had evidently been hung by a lynch mob for saying the "wrong" things.
- "I'll Shoot The Moon" by Tom Waits from The Black Rider:
A vulture circles over your head for you baby
- James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" features a variant, with Blunt's character briefly looking up to see a flock of seagulls (which, like vultures, are scavengers) circling over him as he's about to throw himself off of a cliff.
- The subject of several gags in The Far Side, one example being a depiction of "the perils of improper circling": two of the vultures bonk heads in mid-air.
- One newspaper cartoon by Andrzej Mleczko depicted a vulture sitting on a branch, looking down at a dying rhino: "I hope I am not bothering you, sir, I am just waiting for you to croak."
- Dungeons & Dragons module B8 Journey to the Rock. When the PCs reach the Cave of Sanctuary they will see sinister vultures circling lazily overhead: they're about to snack on the body of a recently killed gnome.
- In Porgy and Bess, a buzzard flying over Catfish Row is seen as a bad omen.
"Boss, dat bird mean trouble. Once de buzzard fold his wing an' light over yo' house, all yo' happiness done dead."
- Used in Die Anstalt for one of Dolly's dream sequences, but the vultures are part-wolf.
- In King's Quest V: Absence Makes The Heart Go Yonder!, two vultures descend if Graham dies of thirst in the desert.
- In Discworld II one puzzle involves vultures hovering over a piece of carrion. Hide a rotting severed arm among the trader's goods and watch vultures to see where he keeps going.
- In Lords of Xulima, circling vultures are a common background element in the Varaskel desert region. Typically they're circling around some sun-bleached bones, too...
- In Far Out, a vulture comes to look at our wandering main character. Despite his being a robot and so slightly inedible.
- In one Kevin & Kell strip Ms Aura (a school teacher and a turkey buzzard) is circling above Rudy's homework. Rudy and Bruno comment that this isn't a good sign.
- After Caboose acidentally kills Church with a tank in Red vs. Blue, he tries to cheer him up. "Look, birds! ...why are they flying around in circles?"
- Tetrapod Zoology
- In Arthur, this is used (and mentioned), as Francine and Fern draw attention to the fact that there are vultures above them when they're lost in the mountains.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the group gets lost in the desert and thinking of ways to find a way out, while Sokka is still tripping on cactus juice. "Why don't we ask the circle birds?"
- In Beavis And Butthead Do America, the boys are lost in the desert when vultures start circling. Even in this dire situation, the little boneheads still take the time to "huh-huh!" when they see a pair of vultures "doing it".
- In the "Pecos Bill" segment of Melody Time, Bill meets his horse Widowmaker when rescuing him from circling vultures.
- March of the Dinosaurs: Well, it's more like circling Azhdarchids...
- Invoked in the "Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen Anthem" from The Ren & Stimpy Show:
"And the buzzards they soar overhead,
And poisonous snakes will devour us whole,
Our bones will bleach in the sun!"
- Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving child in the Sudan, with a vulture waiting in the background. After accusations of cruelty for failing to come to the child's aid, Carter took his own life at the age of 33.note