By Brandon M. Breen, Falkland Islands
Brandon (pictured below) is studying Turkey Vulture flight behaviour and diet, along with farmer perceptions of vultures on the Falkland Islands for his M.Sc. research in the Conservation Biology graduate program at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Brandon visited the Islands on three trips and lived there for ten months.
About the Falklands
It’s fun the first time I tell a person I study Turkey Vultures in the Falkland Islands. People always glide over the vulture part and start asking about the Falklands. They invariably repeat the name of the place, “The Falkland Islands, huh,” and then pause for a second to search their mind for anything they know about this far-flung archipelago. Next, they scrunch up their brow and ask a little uncertainly, “Wasn’t there a war there or something?”
For those of you without much knowledge of the Falkland Islands, allow me to provide you an intro. The islands are in the South Atlantic, some 300 miles off Argentina’s Patagonian coast. The islands – think windswept, treeless, rugged, and rolling – are a mutton-lover’s paradise.
At a ratio of about 200 to 1, sheep dramatically outnumber humans. (Let’s hope push never comes to shove.) The human population teeters around 2,600 and is a mix of multi-generation Islanders (primarily of British descent) and people from Britain, St. Helena, and Chile and, to a lesser extent, numerous other countries. Most people live in the one and only city, Stanley.
The Falklands briefly came to international attention in 1982 when Argentina, which holds a long-standing claim to the islands, invaded. A bloody sea-, air- and land-war followed for a few months as British forces came down and liberated the Islanders. Relations between Argentina and the Falklands are still poor (Argentina refuses to give up its claim, or trade, or allow passenger flights to the islands from Argentine soil) and the war remains a sensitive and salient subject in the minds of the Islanders.
Since human settlement, the islands have supported livestock and lots of them. (Also, early on, people harvested penguins and seals en masse for oil, which seems deplorable to today’s sensibilities.) Historically the farming communities were organized into a handful of small but lively settlements, which held all ages, employed a travelling teacher, and had a dedicated building for single male shepherds. Children had unlimited grasslands to explore and explore these they did in search of unlucky geese and armed with bolas made of sheep or cow knuckles. Isolation was intense as roads weren’t yet built and travel from one end of East Falkland to the other, usually on horseback, took days. (Charles Darwin wrote unfavorably about one of these multi-day trips.)
Recently the islands have undergone substantial change. Wealth generated by newly developed fisheries (squid, toothfish) and a thriving tourism industry has powered much of the change. Additionally, a crash in wool prices caused a dramatic reduction in the number of farmers and changed the fabric of farm life. The large farms of the past have been divided into smaller farms that are typically managed by husband and wife teams. In the camp (as the countryside is called, from the Spanish “campo”), where communities once existed in all their eccentricities one now finds quiet farm houses (outfitted with television, phone and internet) dotted sparingly across the landscape.
The Falklands People
In pursuit of data on farmer perspectives of Turkey Vultures I travelled widely and met many farmers. I am a city boy with respectable outdoors experience, but a city boy nonetheless, an American, and a conservationist, and so am met with some scepticism by the farming community. Farmers initially probe to see if I possess a sense of humor, a test I usually pass by laughing heartily at the first joke about eating albatross for lunch. Happily I have spent many tea-drenched and cake-filled hours over the dining room table with farmers while they relate stories (remind me to tell you about the pet Turkey Vulture “Turkey,” rest his soul) and shared their culture as cake crumbs escape my mouth with each “Oh” or “Uh-huh” I emit.
Mingling with farmers does, though, offer opportunities for social gaffes for a person of my background. One frosty morning my naiveté to the farming lifestyle became monumentally exposed when Shelley Nightingale, at West Lagoons farm, had to inform me that, no, as a matter of fact, ice cream does not come out of cow udders when milked in cold weather.
A nice feature of many cultures around the world is the habit of dropping in to someone’s home unannounced. In Stanley this is a common custom. Within a few weeks of having nestled myself into a comfortable position in the islands, I started getting invitations – often from people I barely knew (for example the yoga instructor’s mother Sue extended an invitation from her yoga mat) – to “pop on over for a cup of tea”.
The “when” of these invitations was conspicuously absent. After a few days I began to wonder if people were wondering about me. Wondering why that “Vulture Man” (how I am most commonly known) hasn’t popped on over for tea and biscuits. I was at a bit of a loss. I didn’t quite know how to proceed. Really, I thought, should I just show up at the doorstep of a person I’ve only spoken to once or twice? What if they’re in the middle of a meal, or watching a program they enjoy, or just aren’t in the mood for company? What should we talk about? What if we don’t have anything to talk about? Now, in truth, I wasn’t worrying about this to the point of neurosis, but I did have a few false starts. Off I go to Rex’s house… well, maybe they’re busy, I’ll just redirect myself to the store and pick up a Cadbury chocolate bar with fruit and nuts in it.
Eventually, though, I brought knuckle to door. Rex, a New Zealander, and his Falkland Islander wife Trudy, were my first recipients. They welcomed me heartily, poured me a rum and coca-cola, and the conversation took an animal theme as we touched on creatures from mites to elephant birds, sting rays to mussels, and there was even an echidna in there somewhere. A possum or two also scuffled into our chat. The dislike of New Zealanders for the invasive Australian possum is legendary, and human feats of endurance and cunning have been undertaken to remove some unlucky possums from the realm of existence.
We sashayed around this topic for a few moments. One fascinating tableau that emerged involves Rex charging off into the dark of night with his rifle in hand while his wife Trudy, following behind, tries desperately to keep up as she carries a car battery with wires running from it to power Rex’s headlamp. Another story: While Rex was driving down the road, he spotted a possum walking along a telephone wire. He thought he would “get the bugger” by blaring his car horn. The animal, surprised, lost its balance, but only swung below the wire and continued moving along the wire seemingly unfazed and upside down.
My housing benefactor in the Islands and roommate Grant, who was then lead man at Falklands Conservation, possesses an identifiably British (dry) sense of humor. Grant is a soft-spoken class-act who has occasional outbursts of zany hilarity interspersed sparingly among (and contrasted strongly with) his more subdued quips. The playfulness behind his words is indicated not by a smile, but rather a glint in his eyes.
As it were, Grant and I were talking the other day on the topic of vegetables and humans and the similarities between the two. Playing devil’s advocate, Grant pontificated, “You know, there really isn’t any difference, both humans and vegetables are composed of carbon and nitrogen and …”
To extinguish his budding argument, I gesticulated wildly with my arms and legs and noted, triumphantly, “I’d like to see a vegetable do that.”
Grant sipped his tea, the point appeared settled, conversation completed. Then, in characteristic quiet fashion, he added, “Not really much different from a kale bush in a gale.”
In the town of Stanley on a winter night one notices the stars above – a rare observation in a capital city. I find it wondrous and conducive to contemplation that a starry sky has been taken away from hundreds of millions of people. How insidious has been the taking of our stars; we do not even realize these mighty bodies with their soft light, pondered and admired for millennia by our ancestors, have been removed from above our noses and exchanged in the name of progress. Those few that remain visible from a city street are impotent without the fraternity of their fellows. There is no outrage for outage, no cry for amends, it is simply accepted that a starry sky is an enjoyment relegated to places remote. As you walk home at night following a few laughs and beers at a Falklands pub, a glance up to the star-filled sky will remind you just where you are on the planet and how many miles separate you from the nearest continent.