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Circling Vultures

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"If you’re alone in the desert and see vultures above you, your first thought is never, 'Oh thank God, the vultures have come to help.'"

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. It's like a visual shorthand for the natural world itself saying If You Die, I Call Your Stuff.

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.


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  • 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...
  • One phone commercial has a guy waiting for his phone to connect, while someone using the product being advertised sits next to him and goes through what needs to be done in a few seconds. When he walks away, a pair of vultures settle next to the guy with the slow connection.

    Anime & Manga 
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • 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.

    Film - Animated 
  • 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 (1994), 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.
  • In Beavis And Butthead Do America, Beavis and Butthead wander off into the desert in an idiotic attempt to try and reach Washington D.C on foot (from New Mexico!) and end up slowly dying from dehydration (after briefly stumbling across two drifters who are heavily implied to be their long-lost fathers). Sure enough, the vultures show up. One even attempts to gnaw on Beavis while he's still alive.
    Beavis: Cut it out, butthole! *smacks it away*
    • While very near death, they still take a moment to giggle at two of the vultures having sex. They're eventually found by Muddy, the movies Big Bad who "rescues" them just so he can shoot them.

    Film - Live Action 
  • 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.
  • During his escape through the jungle in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Shears notices a couple of vultures waiting for him to die.
  • 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.
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog: Some vultures, who don't have any carrion handy, start circling a lost toddler who is very much alive.
  • In Conan the Barbarian (1982), one vulture actually tries to peck the crucified Conan. Conan bites its neck and chokes it.
  • In Desert Nights jewel thieves Steve and Diana rob a diamond mine's safe, kidnap Hugh the mine foreman, and escape into the desert. The escape goes bad in a Thirsty Desert. Hugh makes sure that they notice the vultures circling overhead, waiting to eat them.
  • Cartoon vultures appear out of nowhere directly after a character is killed in Terror Toons.
  • In Tumbleweed, Jim watches the circling buzzards and compares them to Yaqui who patiently waiting to starve him and the posse out. He even remarks that if you didn't know what they signified, they might even be considered pretty.

  • 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.
  • Referenced in "Tiger! Tiger!" In The Jungle Book:
    The sun makes the rocks dance in the heat, and the herd children hear one kite (never any more) whistling almost out of sight overhead, and they know that if they died, or a cow died, that kite would sweep down, and the next kite miles away would see him drop and follow, and the next, and the next, and almost before they were dead there would be a score of hungry kites come out of nowhere.
  • In Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, vulture-like birds called Gwythaints serve the villainous Arawn, whose title is "Lord of Death." Needless to say, when they show up it usually means something bad is about to go down.
  • Circling scavenger birds appear in more than one chapter of The Cold Moons. A few buzzards and a red kite inadvertently lead Eldon's group to a dying deer, which they kill and bring back to their sick peers.
  • The Tango Briefing (1973) by Adam Hall. British spy Quiller is sent to investigate a crashed airplane in the desert, which has the requisite vultures to his distaste. The plane turns out to be carrying a cargo of fear gas, so Quiller hallucinates that he's being attacked by giant vultures. The vultures serve as a Chekhov's Gun when Quiller has to detonate a small atomic bomb to destroy the gas, but the timing mechanism is broken. He plays dead, waits till the vultures come to have a taste, grabs one of them and throws it inside the cockpit where he's jammed the bomb's detonator button under the thrust levers. When the vulture gets tired of flapping around in outrage it goes to perch on the levers and...

    Live Action TV 
  • 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.

  • Referenced by Ego Likeness in their song, "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.
  • Wesley Willis wrote a song called "The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up".
    Once upon a time, a team of hungry birds came down on a dead body.
  • Played for Laughs in Jake Thackray's "The Bantam Cock" (also covered by Jasper Carrott). The amorous cockerel has his way with every female bird in the neighbourhood...
    Then all of a sudden, with a gasp and a wheeze,
    He clasped his wings to his head;
    Lay flat on the ground with his feet in the air;
    Me bantam cock lay dead,
    And the vultures circled overhead, they did...
    He gave me a wink and a terrible grin,
    The way that rapists do.
    He said, "You see them big daft buggers up there?
    "They'll be down in a minute or two...
    "They'll be down in a minute or two."

    Newspaper Comics 
  • 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 famous strip has some vultures gathered around an unseen corpse. One of them is wearing the guy's hat and coat and says mockingly "Hey! Look at me, everybody, I'm a cowboy! Howdy, howdy, howdy!"
    • Another strip cartoon has a parched desert traveler crawling his way towards a pool of water. This prospect disappoints one vulture hovering above him, but a second vulture prepares to drop a piano on him before he reaches it.
    • Yet another strip shows Pinocchio stranded in the desert, with the vultures replaced by woodpeckers intent on pecking on his wooden body.
    • Another strip features two elderly men feeding birds at a park bench, commenting on the smaller birds eating their seed but wondering why two much larger birds nearby just stare at them.
  • 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."

    Tabletop RPG 
  • 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."

    Video Games 
  • 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 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, in the Desert of Mystery, vultures leave their cactus perch and circle around Link. During the ending credits, vultures in the desert circle around the Master Locksmith, the Average Middle-Aged Man.
    • In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, a swarm of seagulls marks the spot in the waters of Great Bay where the nearly-dead Mikau is floating, and achieves the same effect.
  • 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...
  • A gameplay mechanic in Evolve. Every time the monster eats there is a chance of spawning these. While the first two meals have a 0% chance, those odds increase until the eighth has a 100% chance. The odds reset to a lower number every time birds spawn. Unlucky players may trigger these with every meal while others may never see them.
  • In Hyper Light Drifter there is an entire cult of birds resembling vultures or corvids.

    Web Comics 
  • 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.

    Web Original 
  • 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

    Western Animation 
  • 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?"
  • The Ptero Soarer Scrapadactyls from Dinotrux will often circle above injured Dinotrux, making it easy to find someone in need of rescue.
  • 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!"
  • Gravity Falls:
    • In "Northwest Mansion Mystery" the introduction of the town's century-old Mayor, Eustace Befufftlefumpter, has him followed by a few vultures. He doesn't seem all that bothered by their presence. "That's okay, they're with me."
    • In "The Love God", Robbie is lying in an open grave and mopes loudly about how much he misses Wendy. A vulture shows up, and Robbie tells it to just go ahead and eat him already. Once it does, however, he quickly backtracks.
      Robbie: AAAH! I was just being dramatic! Quit it! Ow, my face! VULTURE!!

    Real Life 
  • Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving child in the Sudan, with a vulture waiting in the background. note 
  • Leaks in natural gas lines invoke this trope: the oderizer that's added to it makes it smell like rotting meat to turkey vultures, so they'll circle the gas line looking for the corpse. Gas company technicians have learned to use this to locate leaks more quickly.
  • A common paleoart meme back in the day was portraying the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus as a prehistoric stand-in for this trope, almost always by depicting it following herds of migrating dinosaurs with the assumption that it's waiting for one of them to keel over from exhaustion so it can swoop down and eat the remains. Later research revealed that this likely wasn't the case—Quetzalcoatlus wasn't built to be an obligate scavenger, instead being more adept at hunting small vertebrates on the ground, like a modern stork or heron the size of a small plane. Scavenging wasn't entirely out of the question for Quetzalcoatlus, of course, but that's not saying much as all carnivores (and even most herbivores) are known to scavenge every now and then.


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