Alcalá de los Gazules - Vulture Culture


Vulture Culture

by Juan Leiva translated by Claire Lloyd


From my house I could hear shouting coming from the Calle Real.  As a seven-year-old I could not resist going to find out what was causing such an uproar.  I shot off like an arrow, and went to the corner of Calle Real and Rio Verde, where my friend Manolo's father had his tannery.  I was sure that Manolo would be waiting for me there.  We were the same age and knew each other inside out.

It was a grey autumn afternoon, raining slightly.  The year was 1939, when the Civil War was coming to an end.  Two young men had found an injured griffon vulture on a hill overlooking the town.  They were carrying it along in such a way that the poor creature's claws could hardly touch the ground.  There was blood on one of its wings, as if it had been shot with a rifle.  The wings must have measured nearly three metres from tip to tip, reaching from one pavement to the other and blocking the whole of the Calle Real.

A group of children came up behind the creature, wanting to get a closer look.  But the young men wouldn't let them, fearful that it would try and defend itself.  One of them carried a stick.  Whenever the vulture made an attempt to flee, he gave it a warning prod and the poor animal looked from one side to the other, as if realising the hopelessness of getting away.  On one of these occasions I was able to see its head and its neck, featherless, with the ruff further down forming the plumage that gives it the name "leonado".  Its eyes expressed a profound sadness.

Griffon vultures were [and still are] frequently seen in the sky over Alcalá.  When they smelled carrion, they would come from the mountain peaks and circle round and round at a great height, as if working out a strategy for falling on a dead mule on the Coracha, a sick cow in the Prado or a wounded deer in the Alcornocales.  After feeding the band of vultures would continue gliding high in the sky above Alcalá. 

People said that they were birds of bad omen, but nobody knew why; possibly because their appearance indicated the presence of dead animals.  For vultures and other carrion-eaters there was no shortage of food in the countryside around Alcalá.  As well as carrion, they fed on lizards, snakes, rabbits and any animal left behind by huntsmen.  They combed the hills for caza mayor - deer or wild boar - and would usually find some dead beast left behind in the undergrowth, or smaller animals caught in poachers' traps and never collected.

The retinue followed after the vulture, shouting.   I don't know how many times they went up and down the street.  Some onlookers said it was a griffon vulture; others said it was a golden eagle.  But the young men were certain that the strong, curved beak and the claws were those of a vulture.  The poor creature moved its head in sorrow, as if awaiting its sentence.  The discussion ended and they dragged the vulture along, forcing it with the stick.

Halfway down the Calle Real, near the house where Dr Antonio Armenta lived, the bird refused to get up again.  The young man kept poking it with the stick, but eventually the creature hung its head and died.  Don Antonio stood in his doorway, making a gesture of disapproval at such a death.  Later, with his authority as the town's doctor, he ordered it to be carried to the common land at the foot of the hill where we played football, and buried. That night, the vulture's sorrowful eyes would not let us sleep.


Translated by Claire Lloyd.  Reprinted with the author's permission.

This account is an abridged translation of one of a series of articles by writer JUAN LEIVA, about growing up in Alcalá de los Gazules (Cádiz). The original Spanish version can be found at