‘They fly through the air with the greatest of ease’
I watch them daily from the crest of Caesar Mountain, and they never fail to amaze. I’m speaking of the turkey vulture aka the buzzard; another friend of mankind who gets few accolades for a job well done.
It’s true, the buzzard will not win any beauty contest, given its dull coloration and ugly featherless red head.
Yet, they are the masters of soaring, and something glider pilots have been attempting to emulate since the dawn of aviation. Buzzards make the spectacle of catching the thermals a fine art. They sometimes ascend to great heights without ever flapping their wings.
Let’s see the crows do that!
Then there’s the fact that the buzzard performs a necessary service seldom appreciated. Death is frequent among wildlife in a violent world of predators and prey.
Add into the equation the wildlife killed both intentionally and unintentionally by man. You can appreciate that there are many dead carcasses out there lying about at any given moment.
Just consider the many dead animals seen on the highways alone.
Buzzards find their food by flying around using their powerful sense of smell and sight to locate a meal.
Buzzards are scavengers and eat carrion, preferring their meat, let’s just say – well-aged. Their unique adaptation to this form of dining is an exceptionally acidic stomach.
They act as nature’s air fresheners and prevent the spread of diseases in the process. For this, we should be thankful.
I have heard people remark that it is hard to tell the female turkey vulture from the male. That’s true, as they are a bird species exhibiting little sexual dimorphism. Dimorphism means that the feathers and other visual characteristics are nearly identical in both sexes.
Buzzards are found from the southernmost part of Canada to the very tip of South America. They fly south as cold weather approaches, preferring to spend winters from the Carolinas down to Florida.
That the turkey vulture always returns from its winter holiday in the same week of March each year has made one town in Ohio quite famous. Hinckley is about double the size of Lewisburg and is situated about 30 miles south of Cleveland.
Just outside Hinckley is a stunningly beautiful park called Whipps Ledges. The sandstone rock formations, reminiscent of Beartown only greater in height, attract rock climbers year-round and buzzards in March, specifically on March 15.
March 15 was designated as the date of the return of the Buzzards since 1957. Buzzard lovers may attend the annual Buzzard Day celebration on the first Sunday after their arrival.
There, you’ll find an arts and crafts festival, a pancake breakfast, and tours of Whipps Ledges.
Just why the buzzards began coming to this specific area each spring has become the stuff of legend. And, like all legends, the truth may be difficult to establish. Still, the following is what some claim first brought the turkey vultures to Hinckley.
The Big Hunt
It is accurate and well documented that there was an event on December 24, 1818, in Hinckley Township called The Big Hunt. Hundreds of armed men assembled on the outer perimeter of the township and marched toward the center, killing every wild animal they came across.
At the end of the day (literally), they had killed 17 wolves, 21 black bears, 300 deer and countless other wildlife. Additionally, each man residing in this farming township was afterward required to kill a minimum of 100 squirrels per year.
Such extermination would cause a considerable uproar today. But in the early 1800s, farming was a challenging proposition. The damage caused by wild animals only added to the farmer’s burden.
And this hunt, they say, and the countless rotting carcasses brought the buzzards to Hinckley. Likewise, it is claimed the birds have been returning every year since 1818 for the biggest all-you-can-eat wildlife smorgasbord on record.
Wheeeew! Hinckley must have sold every clothespin in town, what with the overwhelming stench.
That’s the story, and then there’s the truth if we wish to look under the covers.
There is no doubt that the hunt took place and the tally on the wildlife was likely accurate. The stench of so much carrion attracted many scavengers, including the buzzard.
What strikes me as a bit of hyperbole is the claim that the hunt initiated the annual migration of buzzards to the area. It is far more likely that the rock formations had been bringing the birds to this area for millennia.
Cliffs and rock ledges, such as those at Whipps Ledges, are perfect nesting spots for the buzzard. I think it makes more sense that the activity of the buzzards would have increased and been more noticeable to humans with such an abundance of food available following the hunt.
Some myths and fun facts about buzzards
A few weeks ago on a beautiful afternoon, I hiked with my dogs out to the Briery Knob overlook at Droop Mountain. The wooden platform had several buzzards sitting on the railing with fully outstretched wings. Our sudden presence didn’t seem to deter them from their Horaltic Pose.
I had never heard the term “Horaltic Pose” before witnessing the display, but it is typical behavior for many species of birds. I have seen buzzards doing this before and, like many, assumed they were simply drying their wings.
That may not be the case, though.
Scientists continue to be baffled by this behavior. Some believe it is a way of regulating their temperature, and others think it involves ridding themselves of parasites.
Another misconception is that buzzards circle overhead when they think someone or something is dying. Cartoons and movies often depict a dying man crawling across the desert as turkey vultures circle overhead.
The obvious implication is that they are passing the time until death delivers them another meal.
However, when buzzards are circling overhead, they are generally just gaining altitude by riding thermals in an upward spiraling pattern.
Another peculiarity of the buzzards is urinating on their legs as a way of cooling off. And here, I always thought that urine only came out of an orifice warm.
Finally, buzzards have a unique form of defense when they feel threatened. They vomit!
Not your run-of-the-mill projectile vomitus that most people think, but a chunky sample of partially digested rotting flesh. What makes this doubly revolting is that this upchuck is highly acidic and can burn the eyes of its attacker.
One more factoid. If a group of crows flying around is called a murder, what do you call a group of buzzards in flight?
A kettle of buzzards. Think I’m pulling your leg? Check it out yourself.
* The word “buzzard” also describes hawks of the Buteo genus. Generally used in the old world where hawk is more common in the U.S.