Buzzards are creepy. Let’s just admit it. I’ve never known anyone to have a buzzard as a pet. For one thing, it would be difficult to keep an ample supply of dead flesh for feeding time. And if a person did keep buzzards and was able to feed them on a regular basis, the local law enforcement would probably get involved.
It makes chills run up the back of my neck thinking about it. The Looney Tunes “Beaky Buzzard” is one thing, but the real deal is not like that.
I know. You’re thinking, “He’s writing about buzzards. Really?”
Last week on my way home from work, I noticed a dead buzzard on the side of the road. Half in the grass and half on the asphalt. I watched in my mirror as the car that passed me from the opposite direction weaved around the carcass.
Buzzards are graceful in the air, but clumsy on the ground. They skip and shuffle around their dinner plate on the edge of the road like there’s not a care in the world. This one didn’t seem to understand that the big hunk of metal on wheels that squashed the squirrel for dinner would also squash him if he didn’t get out of the way.
I remember thinking, “Well, I guess his friends will have fun with that.”
Next morning on the way to work, the buzzard is still there. Untouched. That afternoon, still there. It’s been five days now and he just seems to be wasting away because he’s not on the menu for scavengers. I guess not even the possum want him.
It turns out, according to the avian experts, a buzzard has to be really hungry, like starving hungry, to eat one of their own. It almost never happens. I have the same opinion about chitlins.
Before I go any deeper into buzzard lore, I am well aware that buzzards are not really buzzards. Our American Buzzard is actually a Turkey Vulture with ancestors from Sweden. The true buzzard is a smaller bird of prey from across the big pond in Great Britain. Our ancestors who came here in the 1600s saw the Turkey Vulture and wrongly called it a Buzzard. The name stuck.
As a kid, I could watch a group of buzzards soring overhead until they went out of sight. It was easy to imagine that they might chase me down and pick apart my flesh.
At times I would hide from them. At other times I would lay dead still in the grass, thinking they might come get me. Every few minutes I’d open one eye to check and see if they were taking the bait.
It never happened. It never happened because buzzards are not birds of prey. They don’t attack. The lumber in after the carcass is properly cured. Even though I had not bathed in days, soaked in kid-sweat, I wasn’t ripe enough for them.
There was this one time, I walked down to the lake, past the barn and beyond the middle pasture. I had my BB gun with me and was looking for anything to shoot at. Pinecones. Dragonflies. Maybe a floating can if I was lucky.
It was February, so the trees were bare, but it was a warm day like it can be in late winter. When I topped the hill, across the lake I could see a tree with a bunch of buzzards roosting in it. I mean, there were maybe 40 buzzards. I had seen 4 or 5 soaring together, riding the thermals. I had seen maybe 10 or 15 chowing down on a dead deer in the ditch beside the road. But I had never seen this many buzzards all at one time, all in one place.
The old people in my life used to say that if a buzzard roosted on top of your house, it was certain that death was coming to visit that house in the near future. “O Lord,” they would say. “That’s not a good sign.” At the sight of 40 buzzards, I was certain the world was about to end.
I read where the American Indians had a much different view. They thought of buzzards as a sign of peace and cleansing. When the vultures ate flesh, they made it possible for the spirit to escape the body. They saw it the same whether it was a wolf, or a bison, or a warrior who fell in battle. They kept the earth clean.
I have to admit, I’d hate to think of a world without buzzards. The experts say that a buzzard can smell rotting flesh up to five miles away. And since they don’t have to see it to find it, they can find a rotten buffet almost anywhere.
At one point in my career at Callaway Gardens, I somehow became the go-to-guy for dealing with dead animals around the garden. My radio would crackle.
“71 to 73.” I didn’t have a cool call-sign.
“This is 73, go ahead.”
“We’ve got an item on the bicycle trail near the chapel.”
“10-4.” An “item” was code for carcass, which meant that I was on dead animal duty.
That duty included quite a list over the years. Dead chickens that fell off the truck on Highway 27. Dead squirrels on the Five-Mile Drive. A possum in the turf area behind the cottages. The absolute worse experience: a bloated deer floating in the edge of Mountain Creek Lake. Or was it the swollen soft-shell turtle stuck in the overflow pipe at Steeplechase.
I always felt that I was doing the buzzards a disservice by intruding on their livelihood. I sometimes wondered if they were following me around. Circling 100 feet above, waiting on the next radio call. I had a “secret place” for all the disposals, and I know they found it, because every time I dropped off another victim the former victim was gone. The Indians were right.
Just so this piece can be educational, and there’s certainly nothing else redeemable about this column, here’s a few terms you can use to impress your friends. Don’t call them a bunch of buzzards. There are specific ways to refer to groups of buzzards, depending on what they’re doing.
When a handful are soaring and circling way up in the sky, they are called a “kettle” of vultures. When there’s a group in the roadside ditch paying their respects to the deceased, they are called a “wake” of vultures, which kind of makes sense. Maybe. But when you run up on a whole host of them roosting up on a tower, or on top of a barn, or in a tree, like that tree I saw down at the lake, they are called a “committee” of vultures. I suppose because they look like they are having a meeting.
One piece of advice. Don’t ever approach a buzzard in a threatening manner. When threatened, they vomit. If you thought the bloated dead racoon smelled bad before being consumed, you do not want to be around buzzard vomit. Regurgitated rot is way worse than fresh rot.
Or so I’m told.
What’s for supper, y’all?
2 thoughts on “Buzzards”
Thanks for the chuckles Paul. I’ve always kinda equated buzzards with slumlords.
When I was younger and rambling round in the woods I saw buzzards several times in a tree at the dam at y’all’s pond , always late in hunting season or spring fishing…. Usually a tree full of them 40 plus….. anyway really enjoy your writing
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