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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.'"
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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. Gaining height in flight requires a lot of energy, and large birds rely on riding thermals, columns of rising hot air, to save their strength. Despite the trope name, the birds don't necessarily have to be vultures — crows and ravens are often used to provide much the same effect.

Not to be confused with Circling Birdies even though vultures are birds. See also Kidnapping Bird of Prey, for when the bird goes after the character while they're still alive. More often than not, these will be some of the only living things to keep you company in the Sea of Sand.

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As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • 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.
  • Wonder Woman: Odyssey: Some vultures follow Diana through a lonely desert and end up feasting on her enemies after a group of mercenaries tries, and fails, to slaughter a stranded group of mostly unarmed Amazon refugees, apparently without much understanding of what "Amazon" means even if the group is mostly the old and infirm.
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    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 
  • The 3 Little Pigs: The Movie: Two vultures perch on a tree near The Inn of the Gentle Wolf and hope the dinner guests let them have some bones to gnaw on after the Dinner Theatre where Wally and Beemo will be the stars of the show.
  • 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".
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Two vultures follow the Queen in her Wicked Witch disguise 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.
  • 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. 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 movie's Big Bad who "rescues" them just so he can shoot them.

    Film — Live Action 
  • ''Airplane!': They're not circling, but' 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.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai: During his escape through the jungle, Shears notices a couple of vultures waiting for him to die.
  • Capricorn One: Subverted. 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.
  • 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.
  • The Egyptian (1954) opens with the protagonist as an elderly man in exile on the shores of the Red Sea writing How We Got Here.
    Sinuhe: There is no desolate spot on Earth. Soon the jackals and vultures will make a poor meal of what is left of me.
  • The Scavengers: At the start, Sgt. Ward is worried that circling buzzards might give away their position if the horse dies. At the end, buzzards land and come for Harris as he is pinned under his dead horse.
  • Terror Toons: Cartoon vultures appear out of nowhere directly after a character is killed.
  • 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.

    Literature 
  • 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.
  • In the Quiller novel The Tango Briefing, the British spy 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...
  • A Witch Shall Be Born. Conan the Barbarian is crucified out in the desert, and no guard is placed on him because they'll scare off the vultures, and the sellsword who placed Conan there wants them to feast on Conan before he dies. As in the movie, he kills a vulture who tries feasting on him too early. Some passing desert nomads admire his toughness and rescue him, figuring he'll be a useful addition to their ranks. The story ends with Conan (now chief of the nomad tribe) leaving the sellsword to the same fate, knowing the city-raised sellsword won't last nearly as long as he would and no-one's coming to save him.
  • Isaac Asimov's "The Gentle Vultures": The Hurrians are waiting... they've been waiting for fifteen years... waiting for World War III to devastate the Earth just like it does for every other species. An abducted human yells at them for waiting around until after the wars so they can pick through the dead planets instead of intervening beforehand.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Andromeda Strain:
    • Just the film the series is based one, the military in search of the Scoop satellite sees buzzards circling over Piedmont, Foreshadowing the massacre The Plague has caused.
    • When Nash is alone in the desert and is being pursued by government assassins, a couple of vultures start circling over him, causing him to get pissed and starting throwing rocks at them.
  • Bones:
    • In one episode, when the heroes are looking for some remains, they see vultures circling and know that that's where the remains were.
    • In one episode, the characters are lost in the desert and see vultures circling over them.
  • CSI Verse: All three branches of the 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.

    Music 
  • 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, and afterwards pretends to be dead in order to lure vultures down to his reach.

    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 Games 
  • 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.

    Theatre 
  • 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 
  • Die Anstalt: Used 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.
  • The Legend of Zelda:
    • 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.
    • 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...
  • Evolve has this as a gameplay mechanic. 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.
  • Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: Downplayed. When Nathan Drake comes ashore in Yemen, right after escaping a pirate ship, he finds a single vulture waiting for him. He promptly tells it to clear off.

    Webcomics 
  • Far Out: A vulture comes to look at our wandering main character. Despite his being a robot and so slightly inedible.
  • Girl Genius: A filler strip notifying that the writer "is sick and feeling a mite melodramatic" shows him cowering in bed, worriedly eyeing a very large vulture perched on his covers and glaring at him.
  • Kevin & Kell: In one 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.
  • xkcd: Parodied in strip #962 when one character finds himself harried by a "time vulture", a ragged-looking bird with a lifespan of millennia and the ability to slow its own internal clock to a crawl. They hunt by latching onto a random creature, circling above it and waiting until it stops moving. Of course, the creature in question may be perfectly healthy and have decades of life left in it, but the time vultures can just wait.
    Cueball 1: But what if the prey doesn't die?
    Cueball 2: I don't think you quite understand.
    Cueball 1: I mean, I'm not about to die...
    Cueball 2: From the vulture's point of view, everyone says that right before they do.

    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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