Kat Bergeron: Here’s the cool things I learned about buzzards

·7 min read

What do buzzards and New Year aspirations have in common?


No, I am not starting 2022 tetched in the head.

I’m turning to the advice of Rachel Carson, the American biologist and conservation who told us: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Please join me in my search for wonderment. We all can use giant doses of it as we continue to face overloads of COVID curtailments and political partisanships.

So why buzzards?

I had a visitation.

Two weeks ago dozens upon dozens roosted in trees surrounding my property, a phenomenon I’d never witnessed. It was dusk, I was filling the squirrel-proof feeder, turned my head too quickly and bumped it on the metal feeder. “Ouch,” I yelled out.

Off flew about 30 startled buzzards. Even more stayed put in the trees, mostly very tall oak. My house is surrounded by woods and because most leaves have shed I was able to take a binocular count. I stopped at 100 when it turned too dark to see. Many were still there in the morning, spreading their wings to the rising sun to dry. I watched in wonderment.

Off and on for a month I’ve had nightly visitations but no repeat of The 100 visitation. I’ve pulled out bird books and perused the Internet to learn about the odd creatures gracing this little woodsy hill.

Simply put, buzzards are amazing birds. They do have a bad case of The Uglies but everything else about their presence on Earth is fascinating, once you look beyond their undeserved bad rep.

Indeed, the buzzard’s ability to soar on rising columns of air is wondrous to behold. It makes me want to sprout wings and soar the thermals, too.

Their amazing sniffer is the envy of perfume chemists. Their eyesight is eight times better than ours. Their social ability to flock and get along is something we humans should aspire to. Their odd way of stopping the spread of disease is admirable. They are monogamous, mate for life and are family oriented. Their quietness is appreciated in this era of angry talking heads.

Just as Alfred Hitchcock destroyed the love of normal-sized birds for many who watched his horror-thriller, “The Birds,” other movies erroneously have buzzards circling injured humans and dying animals to indicate they are goners. In reality, buzzards cannot sense when an animal is dying.

Their olfactory system, however, is so good that some species can smell carrion (that’s decaying flesh) from a mile away. Once they locate a carcass by smell, sight or the sound of other birds or animals of prey, they approach quickly to claim their share. Did you know that America’s stately national symbol, the bald eagle, also eats carrion?

Look at it this way: Buzzards are helping save the environment and stopping the spread of disease among animals, including us. Before explaining that point, let’s first investigate Buzzard vs. Vulture.

By scientific classification, my tree visitors are really vultures. My two favorite stomping grounds, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Virginia Piedmont, have the same vulture populations with two common species, the Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture.

That doesn’t change the fact that Americans more commonly refer to vultures as buzzards. Blame this confusion on early New England settlers who watched American vultures soar and gave them the familiar “buzzard” name they’d brought from Europe.

Most everyone everywhere acknowledges that these bald-headed, long-necked, large scavengers are vultures, but we Americans relish our language idiosyncrasies, right or wrong.

It helps to understand the name confusion if you know the historic Old World and New World. It was the the Old World settlers to our New World country who first miss-identified vultures as buzzards.

Worldwide, there are 23 vulture species and 26 buzzard species, all considered raptors.

Real buzzards are a type of Old World hawk in the Buteos genus. A “red-tailed hawk” here, for example, would likely be a “red-tailed buzzard” in Old World Europe. Another difference is that real buzzards prefer to search for their own live prey, while real vultures prefer dead stuff. One exception is the Black Vulture which might make an occasional meal out of a live skunk or rodent.

The best summary I’ve found for this word play comes from a recently updated article in The Spruce:

“Ultimately, whether a bird is a buzzard or a vulture depends on who you ask and where you ask them. In North America, a vulture is a vulture, a buzzard is also a vulture and a hawk is a hawk.”

Unlike hawks that have a distinctive kee-eeeee-arr cry, the American vulture-buzzard is silent because it lacks a voice-box. An occasional grunt is about it.

When so many were in the trees nearby, the only sound I heard was flapping wings that can span 5 feet. I watched in wonderment as three or more of these big fellows perched side by side on seemingly thin branches, sometimes changing their seating order as more came to a particular tree. Most nights I get 15 to 40 or so but no repeat of the deluge of The 100.

With hunting season on and deer and other roadkill at apex, I suspect there is plenty of carrion for them, at least here in the Virginia Piedmont. They are rarely sighted circling Coast beaches but inland in the pineywoods they are plentiful. I just chatted with a rural Jackson County friend who said buzzards are keeping his neighborhood free of carrion.

In doing so everywhere they live, these birds are performing janitorial duties no human wants – cleanup of the dead. Buzzards have such strong stomach acids and enzymes that the anthrax, botulism, rabies and other dangerous diseases and microorganisms are destroyed by their digestive system, thus preventing spread to other animals and humans. That’s a good thing for us.

Powerful bills make up for their weak legs and feet, but they still can’t cart off their dinner. Instead, they work in tandem with their own kind or other carrion eaters such as coyotes and eagles.

Buzzard heads and necks are mostly featherless so that when they feed on rotten meat the bacteria and parasites cannot burrow in their feathers and make them sick. This, say bird experts, allows them to stay healthy while feeding on material that would sicken other animals.

Do you now find wonderment in such a finely tuned animal that is the living descendant of dinosaurs? Think of them as natural garbage disposals that save us work and potential health problems.

But I’m definitely not interested in watching them feast on dead stuff. Yuck.

Buzzards, however, are most welcomed to night roost in nearby trees, far enough from the house to be no bother. In my observation, they seem less tolerant of me. The other evening when I pulled out the hose to wash the car, the 20 already settled in as skies darkened took off and didn’t return.

Did you know that a group of our buzzard-vultures is called a committee, venue or volt? A flock in flight is a kettle. When they congregate on a feeding ground to share dinner, that’s called a wake.

For 2022, may the buzzards bring their kettle and have lots of committee venues in my nearby trees but keep their wake to themselves. If and when they move on, I’ll find something else to satisfy my wonderment quotient.

I hope you find your own dose of wonderment to balance whatever 2022 brings. You don’t need to climb the proverbial Mount Everest to gain a sense of wonder. Just pay attention to the smaller things already in the worlds around us.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran reporter and feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.