Volume VII, No. 2, Winter 1979




The Beauty of Buzzards

Story and photographs by Lea Ann Anderson


The turkey buzzard, the common term applied by "us Ozarkians" to the turkey vulture, is a frequent sight on Ozark farms and woodlands. Gently soaring for hours in its graceful flight, rarely flapping its wings, the turkey buzzard adds to the beauty of our skies.

At first glance turkey buzzards seem to do little else but soar around and look beautiful, but a closer look proves wrong on both counts. While flying around they're not goofing off. Searching for dead animals endlessly, turkey buzzards play an important role as scavengers, cleaning up the countryside. As for looks, up close a wrinkled, featherless red head on a black feathered body makes them somewhat less than beautiful.

Turkey buzzards start their lives in what may be called nests--actually they are made of a few twigs piled on the forest floor, in hollow trees, in caves or on cliff ledges. Usually two to three white eggs with small brown splotches form a clutch. The female incubates the eggs for thirty days. When the young are born, they are cared for and cannot fly for six to seven weeks. When hatched they are adorned with white fluffy down which disappears with adult plumage. When fully grown they are twenty-six to thirty-two inches long.

The business of flying, for turkey buzzards, is not nearly as easy as it seems. With rather weak wings that span six feet, they are very clumsy in wing-flapping flight. While a detriment on one hand, the large broad wings are an invaluable aid in soaring. Unlike most birds, buzzards soar for long periods of time, holding their wings in a broad V and rarely flapping their wings. This ability to soar allows them to cover a great deal of ground in search of food, to stay in the air the length of time it takes to find a meal, and to watch the behavior of other buzzards nearby, both to see where a new thermal is and to see if they have located food.

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Buzzards actually float on updrafts of air. These updrafts are caused by the air being heated at ground level, and then it floats up in bubbles or pockets, forming ascending air currents or thermals. Buzzards rise on these air currents, then soar or float in a circle to keep within the stream of air and to search an area before floating to the next thermal.

Once airborne, turkey buzzards rely on their sense of smell to locate food rather than sight, although they have very keen eyesight. Once a buzzard locates its food, it circles to see if it is safe and then drops down to eat. One buzzard's dropping down becomes a signal to other buzzards in the area who come over, circle and join in the feast.

Buzzards are not very fussy about what they eat, except that it be dead and partially rotted. The curved beak is so weak it cannot tear flesh until it is decomposed. They cannot kill animals for they fly too slowly to attack and their feet are too weak for grasping and killing as do birds of prey.

Buzzards live a life of feast and famine depending on the supply of dead animals. When the "pickin's are slim" they might resort to eating cow manure or catching grass hoppers and small bugs.

On large carcasses buzzards may become so gorged that they have trouble flying. When that happens they wait grounded, until part of their food is digested. If they are molested at this time, to lighten their weight so they can fly, they will regurgitate some of their food spraying it on their tormentor. Many times buzzards gorge on animals killed by cars on the highway and are killed themselves as a result of being too full to move quickly.

Dead skunks are a favorite food of buzzards, possibly because of their strong odor. They will eat snakes when available. Sometimes one can see a buzzard flying through the air with a snake dangling in its grasp. Any dead animal is fair game to a buzzard, though no other animal will eat the dead carcass of a buzzard, not even another buzzard.

When they aren't busy flying or eating, buzzards have to have a tree to sit and rest on and to roost on at night.

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Because of its large, clumsy wings a buzzard must find a dead tree or one bare of obstructions. In early spring there is no problem finding a bare tree to land in, but later, as the leaves come out, buzzards have to find a dead tree. Often since there are only a few dead trees that remain standing in a buzzard's territory, many buzzards, who are not naturally gregarious, must all roost together in the same tree. These trees may be called buzzard trees. Many times one can find buzzards on a dead tree early in the morning with wings outstretched waiting to feel the first thermals, which usually start about eight or nine o'clock.

Many people picture buzzards as dirty, nasty animals, but actually they are not. It is their food which is repulsive to most people, as they eat only dead and partially decomposed food. They play a very important role, getting rid of dead animals and controlling disease. By removing dead carcasses, they remove the diseases and bacteria. Also, the buzzard itself is a cleansing unit. Its bare head is designed so that any germs that remain on its head are baked off by the sun. As the food goes through its system, the digestive juices kill the infections that may be in the flesh. Since their urine is a completely sterile fluid, they urinate on their feet to cleanse them.

Buzzards are extremely long lived. Most live to be fifty, but records exist of one old buzzard living to be a hundred years old. I wonder. Is that where the term "old buzzard" came from?

Who knows, but if someone ever calls you an "old buzzard," don't take it as an insult. Buzzards are interesting, useful and sometimes beautiful birds. They spend their lives quietly doing their job and bothering no one. Not just everyone has all of these qualities!


BUZZARD BAIT

When I was five or six years old we moved from the city to a town near my grandmother's farm, where I saw a buzzard for the first time. As I spent the summer with my grandmother I became fascinated with their soaring flight and curious habits. I wanted to know more about them and to see them up close, so I decided to catch one.

At about this age I was always scheming to do something neat, like finding a new way to get the farm dog to pull my wagon, so a new and wonderful plan to catch a buzzard developed quickly. I knew a great deal about buzzards in those days --that they flew around looking for food, their food had to be dead, and that dead food was still. With all this "vast" knowledge I made the best plan possible to catch one--go to a place where the buzzards flew over frequently, lie down and stay very still (buzzard bait) and when the buzzard or buzzards (I plan big) come down to eat I would grab its/their feet.., simple!

I put my plan into action on a sunny June day on the top of a bare hill. Lying down in a comfortable spot I readied myself, became very still and waited. And waited ....

I stayed there in the grass for an eternity, two whole hours, before I realized that something was wrong with my plan. I got up dejectedly and started home, scratching at bites I'd acquired from lying in the weeds. As I tried to figure out what went wrong a rabbit jumped in front of me, and then dashed into some bushes. I sure thought it was cute but I didn't get a very good look at it. So I decided to catch it. I had the best plan ....


BUZZARD BAIT '79

Now at the mature age of sixteen, I am still fascinated by buzzards. I always love to watch them soaring over the hills, dipping and floating in the wind. As I watch these beautiful birds, I still long to see one up close, so last summer I decided to catch one. Now, don't think that I actually meant anything as childish as capturing the bird itself. This time I was going to capture it on film. That was going to be easy.

On the top of our bluff that faces the east stands a dead tree where the buzzards have roosted for years. Since the sun rises beautifully behind the tree, I thought I would get some color shots of buzzards silhouetted against a painted sky.

I stayed at the farm with my grandmother to take pictures as the sun rose early the next morning. I set my alarm for four o'clock to have plenty of time. I could hardly sleep, anxiously wondering what color the sunrise would be and how many buzzards would be on the tree.

Loaded down with cameras and equipment, I trudged up the hill to the bluff. In the pitch blackness I sat down in the dew to wait. As the first grey streaks of night started to slip over the hills, I searched through the misty fog for the tree with the buzzards. I pictured a most poetic view, a large group of buzzards shimmering in the new shining sun. Anxiously I loaded the camera with color film, set up my camera and tripod, attached the telephoto lens, set the shutter speed and focused on the spot where the light was just beginning to reveal ...an empty tree.

After this failure, I tried to take shots of buzzards in the daytime when I knew they were there. After one daytime trip, I realized that they were too far away, showing only black specks in the corner of the photograph. I knew then that I would have to use bait to get them within range of my camera, so I put a new plan into action--a two month long "collecting of dead animals adventure."

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My first attempt at collecting buzzard bait was a trip around the countryside looking for animals killed by cars on the highway. Usually I dodge and curse the large amount of animals left on the roads. On this two-hour, thirty-mile trip, armed with plastic bags and gloves, the largest dead animal I saw was a butterfly in the grill of a passing car.

Once I initiated a new staff member, Kyle Burke, by persuading him to go with me to pick up a dead dog and opossum that I had seen by the side of the road. We were having mixed emotions. Kyle was hoping that the animals were gone, while I was praying that the Highway Department hadn't beat us to my find. We pulled up beside the Highway Department truck just as the attendant was disposing of the dog, so we nonchalantly walked up, bagged our opossum and left, leaving the poor man standing by the side of the road, trying to figure us out.

Sometimes there was a problem with the smell. Once I left a sack of fish and a squirrel hanging in a tree at my aunt and uncle's farm. When I thought about what I had done, I called to tell my younger cousin to dump the sack if the smell became too much. A week later my uncle was frantically searching for a "dead calf" he thought he'd been smelling. After they'd searched for two days, someone finally found the sack, and only then did my cousin remember to relay my message.

Buzzards must not like to have their pictures taken. Every time I would show up with a camera, the buzzards would decide to see what's new in the next county. But once a friend and I drove up on a buzzard that wouldn't budge off his meal long enough to let us by. I instinctively reached for my camera. It wasn't there! And I was close enough to have gotten a picture of his eyeball.

Sometimes if it wasn't camera problems, it was lack of bait. Do you know how frustrating it is to see ten hungry buzzards circling over you when you have nothing to offer them? Our farm is located near Bennett Spring State Park where trout fishing is the main attraction. One desperate day when I couldn't find anything to feed my buzzards, I came up with a great idea. I walked the spring branch with my plastic bag and picked up fish heads and innards--a buzzard buffet. Of course, by the time I got back, the buzzards were gone, but I sure gave the fishermen a good laugh.

So far the buzzards have foiled every attempt at getting a really good picture. The score now is about buzzards fifty-seven, me zero. All told I spent 120 hours, drove 150 miles, collected dead animals five times, bought three chickens, used a can of insect spray, washed the smell out of our car and came very close to being disowned by my family. Even now I've got to remove the dead rabbit in my back yard before it begins to smell! All of this with no pictures to show. But don't worry! I'll catch my buzzard yet. I've got the best plan ....

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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