Three kestrels perched in one tree, three vultures in the other. The vultures were not entirely fond of the forest setting, but getting the kestrels to agree to the meeting anywhere else would have taken weeks. Neither group of birds had the time to arrange an alternate meeting place. Much as the vultures would have preferred a more open area, they were well aware that the venue was not the most important aspect of the meeting.
The lone heron occupied a tree between them. It would have preferred a glade or wetland, but like the vultures, it had to defer to the wishes of the kestrels. Neither the vultures nor the heron planned to defer any longer, the vultures out of their interest and the heron out of the extraordinary power it wielded.
An enormous rat carcass lay prone on the grass. It was dead less than a day but would soon rot. The kestrels and the vultures both laid claim to it. The heron, which was a veritable pescatarian, had been called in to decide the issue. Each side had prepared its arguments since the moment of the rat’s death, while the heron had not seen the carcass until only a few minutes earlier.
“It is quite the rat, I’ll admit,” murmured the heron as it stooped its neck downward.
“Enough for three meals, by my estimate,” piped up a kestrel.
“Incredible,” replied the heron. It paused, then asked softly yet authoritatively, “cause of death?”
“We killed it!” exclaimed another kestrel, puffing out its chest.
“It was old and fat,” snapped a vulture. “Probably had a heart problem and died when it saw your ugly face.”
“I hope you realize the irony of a vulture calling someone else ugly,” countered the kestrel who had made the exclamation.
“Please, enough,” said the heron. “As far as I am concerned, any bird other than a heron, crane, egret, swan or goose lacks a sufficiently attractive neck anyway.”
“Fair enough,” muttered a kestrel. “We did kill the rat, though, and that entitles us to it.”
“We – are – vultures,” one of the vultures, to this point silent, explained as if the kestrels were daft. “We are scavengers, not murderers. We claimed this dead rat and we believe it is ours.”
The heron looked at the kestrels and then back over at the vultures, and then down at the rat. The kestrel was right. The rat more than likely contained just enough meat to feed either of the groups but not both.
“Is there some way to divide the rat?” inquired the heron. “You would all only get half a meal, but I am certain that you are all such capable hunters and scavengers that you would still manage to fill yourselves well before sunset.”
A kestrel shook its head violently. “If we cut open the rat, its entrails will spill, and then there will be little left but ribs and rump.”
It continued, “…the vultures might like that. Can they not eat carrion?”
“Carrion?” repeated the largest vulture, who was appalled by the question. “What do you think we are, buzzards? I will have you know we are dignified creatures that consume the deceased.”
“Will either side accept compensation in return for the rat?” asked the heron. “Perhaps another animal to be determined at a future date?”
“This rat is too valuable,” said a kestrel and a vulture nearly in unison. “It is the largest we have ever seen, and we are hungry now.”
The heron sighed. The kestrels and vultures sat nearly motionless on their branches but for their incessant fuming.
“This is not productive,” moaned the heron. “Separate caucuses effective immediately. I will be by to see each of you.”
Each group turned inward to form a huddle, from which a flat, indecipherable buzz emanated. The heron exhaled as it peered over at each of them, one of the kestrels gesturing wildly with its wings while the vultures bobbed their heads rhythmically. The heron looked up at the cloudy sky, hoping there would not be rain during its flight home.
“I deserve the largest part of the rat!” yelled the largest kestrel to its compatriots. “I have the largest appetite.”
“I sunk my talons into it,” answered one of the others. It grabbed a nearby twig with its foot, “just like that.”
“Oh, please,” said the third kestrel. “I was the one who spotted it. Had it not been for me, neither of you would have known it existed.”
The vultures were no better. One stuck out its tongue, leading to an unceremonious smack upside the head from another’s wing.
“What’d you do that for?”
“We are trying to secure a gigantic rat and you have devolved to boorish immaturity.”
“I am not the one smacking people with my wing. I will have you know that is completely inappropriate.”
“Maybe if we had smacked the kestrels a few times, we would have the rat by now,” said the third vulture balefully. “The kestrels may well have killed the thing. For us to come away with it will take an outstanding effort.”
The kestrels were similarly worried. “I dare say,” noted the kestrel that had spotted the rat initially, “that the vultures’ right may exceed ours. We killed the rat in their territory with them very close by. An inspection of the rat could yield that the wretch died of shock, and if it does, I do not know how we can legitimately claim a creature that did not die by our foot.”
The heron passed between the groups, hearing what each had to say. Each admitted its respective predicament while also reiterating its central arguments. Neither side desired an inspection of the rat, as an unfavourable ruling would be devastating. Neither side would accept even the richest recompense for the prize. The heron saw no other simple solution.
The exhausted heron sat, eyes half closed, as the joint session reconvened.