Ecclesdown Road, a steep track that cuts through Jamaica’s lush John Crow Mountains, boasts some of the best birding in the country. On my visit there in the jolly company of John Fletcher, expert on island avifauna and president of BirdLife Jamaica, I beheld amazing endemics like Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, and both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Parrots. So why was the most memorable bird of my trip a Turkey Vulture?!?
In my defense, all I can say is, “What a turkey vulture!”
Individuals who live outside the regular range of Cathartes aura, which basically encompasses the New World, probably don’t understand the utter ubiquity of the bird. Sure, the TV is cool with its tippy, dihedral glide, roast beef-red visage, and ominous glare. But they are everywhere! If someone told me I’ve seen a million turkey vultures in my life, I wouldn’t be surprised. Here in New York, they compete mainly with Red-tailed Hawks for airspace but they even flourish in the lower latitudes where they have to complete with the equally burgeoning Black Vulture and a multiformity of raptors.
The turkey vulture may be just a step below Rock Pigeons in terms of the respect it usually commands from an American birder, but we were in a most auspicious location for this species. You see, the John Crow Mountains are actually named for the turkey vulture, known colloquially as John Crow. In fact, this association goes back even to when the area was called Carrion Crow Ridge. So there I was in the absolutely gorgeous tropical mountain chain named for the TV, watching many of them soar majestically, if not a bit erratically amidst flights of parrots. Then I spotted a vulture like none I’d ever seen before, bearing large expanses of white feathering against the usual dark plumage:
What a surprise it was to see this one unique individual in this most propitious place. I’ve never been so moved by a turkey vulture. In fact the bird made such an impression that I was still talking about the next day when Wayne Murdock of Attractions Link Ltd. took me to the Blue Mountains, home of world-class coffee and amazing birds. Wayne, a birder himself, knew exactly the bird I was so amazed by. In fact, he had a name for it: the Headman.
The Headman earned his name on account of his inimitable plumage, which evoked memories of the days of African-American slavery. According to Wayne, when a white slave-owner fathered a son with one of his slaves, he’d appoint the grown son to oversee the slaves. Apparently, the mixed heritage was supposed to inspire more merciful treatment. In any case, this partially leucistic turkey vulture was both black and white while the others were uniformly dark. The bird did seem to soar as if invested with a certain authority over its brethren so perhaps the title of Headman had gone to its (forgive me) head.
This very, very interesting tale became even more fascinating for me once I embarked on a little research in the Dictionary of Jamaican English By Frederic Gomes Cassidy. The Headman, I confirmed, is defined as the man in general charge of the laborers on an estate. What was more amazing was that this dictionary also has an entry for Headman John-Crow (also John-Crow Headman) which is “a white John Crow acknowledged as a leader by the black ones.” Such a bird may also be called King Crow, White Crow, or Parson. A footnote from 1943 attributed to Jeffery Smith suggests that cases of partial albinism were quite common.
So one has to wonder… how long has the Headman been ruling the John Crow Mountains? If you’re ever in the area, be sure to look him up!