Surely, one of the homeliest animals known to man is the turkey vulture. With its horror-mask countenance and Bela Lugosi-like mien, the lowly “buzzard” spends its day cleaning up the grisly messes that others make. And we should be thankful that they do what they do….
The bird’s scientific name — Cathartes aura — surprisingly means, “golden purifier,” a hint that not all cultures disregard vultures as we most often do. So commonly seen along roadways that they go as unappreciated as garbage cans, turkey vultures have become fodder for “Far Side” cartoons, wry puns, desert landscape art, and countless plots of Western novels. It is a magnificent soaring bird, yet fate has cruelly bestowed upon it a whispy grunt or hiss rather than a majestic and searing screech. Its mute and patient circling suggests a grave robber rather than a powerful force of crucial cleaning efficiency; they are, putting it euphemistically, nature’s custodial engineers.
It may be surprising, but buzzards — that name originated from the Latin for falcon: buteo — actually hang with impressive company. When looking for eagles or hawks, I usually first watch for the familiar gatherings of turkey vultures, for what they eat also ends up on the more respected raptors’ tables as well. Two weeks ago, I captured a dramatic photo of a streaking young eagle that had been feeding on, shall I say, venison, with a band of buzzards. Without its yet-to-develop white head and tail feathers, he looked right at home on the ground with his less-appreciated pals.
Living in the country, as we do, means that hardly a day passes without buzzards playing their silent, yet significant roles as stock characters. They glide above our woods and fields, often hanging above us as we work in the yard or head to the barn, not because — we hope — that they sense a prospective meal, but because they are curious birds that just happen to have terrific senses of both smell and sight. It is actually a myth that buzzards foretell death, a real comfort since a whole host of them whirled above my golfing buddies and me on a desperately hot day a few weeks ago.
It’s said that buzzards can catch the scent of a meal from a mile away, yet, again, nature left them wanting; they have a pair of very puny legs, so weak that they cannot carry their rotting food with them. That is one reason they tend to remain with roadkill impossibly long, often to their own misfortune. Just a few years ago, a buzzard that just happened to choose the longest path between two points, smacked into and cracked the grill of my truck in its too-late attempt to get airborne; he survived the encounter.
Of course, it is with death that buzzards are most often associated. Although a circling gang of vultures in flight is known as a “kettle” (the term may have come from the notion that the group resembles a boiling pot or cauldron), a passel of them feeding on a carcass is referred to as a “wake.” I have to admit, though, that seeing a host of vultures ahead of me in the road or in a field reminds me more of buffet line than a funeral visitation.
It is a known fact that buzzards will also eat what other animals will not; to their credit, they can digest meat that may be in such an advanced state of decay that it can make other animals — particularly coyotes — sick. But because of their disgusting diets, buzzards clean our roadways and ditches, our pastures and waterways, which may very well be one of the most valuable services any animal provides.
This past spring, I wandered a local cemetery with my camera, looking for the bluebirds I had seen flitting from tombstone to tombstone a few weeks before. Instead, I spotted a turkey vulture as it perched on a rather shoddy nest of wild grapevines and dead branches that lay on the interior iron ladder rungs of an abandoned and roofless old concrete silo. There was no way to tell whether the bird was sitting on eggs, or even if it was a male or female. As is often the case in the bird world, the female is larger than the male. Yet, it sat, a quiet sentinel stoically watching to see how close I would come.
Despite their craven image as stealthy pursuers of decomposition, turkey vultures are highly sociable animals that spend time roosting in large colonies. Graceful in what appears to be an overstuffed winter coat, they often ride thermals like the most exalted of birds, their silver underfeathers often catching the sunlight. In what looks like a show of bravado, buzzards will spread their considerable wings, not as a show of force, but rather to allow their feathers to dry in the sun. Their bare and hideous red necks and faces — that look nearly sunburned — remain featherless to prevent bacteria from infecting them.
Until I began to research buzzards, I never knew that they actually have their own holiday: “International Vulture Awareness Day,” which is celebrated on the first Saturday of each September.
I missed it this year, but I hope somebody had a banquet.