Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Befuddled by Buzzards

I thought I was seeing things. Were those buzzards on the fence posts? Or some kind of puppet or stuffed animal toy someone had placed there as a prank?

Or, even worse, had someone shot some buzzards and mounted them on the posts as a warning to...who? for what?

I was in Gilmer County. The rain had just stopped and a slight mist was rising, making the sight of the birds just a little surreal. I turned around and drove back for a closer look. Some things are worth taking the time to explore.

This is what I saw when I returned to the place where the buzzards were roosting.

They stayed in this position for some time, allowing me to focus my camera, find a good angle and just generally stare at them. It was as if they were posing for me. One would fly off and another would take its place, wings outspread.

I watched them for several minutes. Maybe they were trying to look like eagles. I hated to tell them, but they're a little too redneck for that!

I left no wiser than I had been when I arrived, but my mind had something new to mull over for several miles. I think the buzzards might have been either a) hot and trying to cool off by spreading their wings, or b) trying to dry out after the rain.

If you've ever seen buzzards doing this, I'd be interested in hearing your explanation for their behavior. All I have at the moment are the workings of my fertile (or feeble, depending) mind.

The buzzards reminded me of this folktale from Burma:

The King of the Birds

Long ago the vulture was just an ordinary bird. His feathers were neither splendid or ugly--just ordinary. I'm sorry to tell you that vulture was also of ordinary intelligence--not too smart and actually rather stupid.
One day as the buzzard sat on a fencepost he looked down at himself and saw a feather drop to the ground. Another fell. And another.

"Oh my!" cried the vulture. I'm losing my feathers! Friends, help me!"

The other birds gathered around and looked.

"That's nothing," the chicken assured the vulture. "You're just moulting. All birds lose their feathers so they can grow new ones. That is what is happening to you. It's nothing to worry about."

"Easy for you to say!" said the vulture. "I'm the one going bald. I'll look ugly." He looked worriedly as more feathers fell to the ground. "This is terrible, terrible."

The vulture worried so much that he forgot to eat or drink. soon he was very thin and looked ill.

"Good grief!" said the blue jay. "You're worrying yourself into an early grave." The birds talked together and felt so sorry for the vulture that they came up with a plan to help him.

"Look, vulture. You can have one of my feathers." The blue jay plucked out a blue feather and stuck it into vulture's thinning feathers. One by one the other birds each gave vulture a feather. The robin gave an orange one from his breast; the goldfinch a bright yellow one, the cardinal a beautiful red one and so on.

"Wow! Look at me! I'm beautiful!" Vulture was so excited about his fantastic new plumage that he began to brag to anyone who would listen.

"Am I not the most beautiful of all the birds? Only look at me. I'm more beautiful than a rainbow." Vulture soon forgot how he had gotten his bright-colored feathers and did nothing but strut around boasting of his own beauty all day.

"Since I am now so handsome, I think that I must be the King of the Birds! All of you must bow down to me and call me Your Majesty!"

The birds had had enough. Quickly they took back all of the feathers they had given to vulture. They were so angry they also pecked off all of the vulture's own feathers! He looked wrinkled, bald and ugly when the birds were finished.

Those birds did such a good job that to this day the feathers on the vulture's head have never grown back. His old bald head is exposed to the sun every day, and burns redder and redder.

Or perhaps that red color comes from his embarrassment at remembering how once he thought he was the King of the Birds.

You can find another version of this story at Pitt's etext site for public domain literature.


Matthew Burns said...


I might have an explanation for you, depends on what time of day you saw these vultures.

It is actually pretty common to see vultures alight on fence posts, barn roofs, dead tree's, etc.. in the morning hours. This is because they have featherless heads and legs, which keep them cool on hot summer days, but leave them cold and damp from night air (perhaps also after a cold rain?).

Once on the fence posts, etc., the vultures move about slowly, if at all. They have to be spaced apart though so they don't bump into each other, which makes a fence line the perfect spot. When they warm up a bit more, they spread their wings with their backs to the sun to get even more solar heat. Once they are adequately warmed, they take off in search of a rotting carcass (Thank God for ketchup?)

Also, of interest, "Buzzards" in the New World are actually vultures, which are more related to flamingo's than the Old World Buzzards. I grew up calling them buzzards too, and typically still call them that. A buzzard by any other name...! By either name, the bird we are talking about here is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).

My mom tells a story about a girl she grew up with being vomited on by a turkey vulture!! Imagine that...

Hope this sheds some light on these remarkable birds.

I just love your blog!!!

Granny Sue said...

That's interesting, Matt. This was late afternoon, so they may have been trying to warm up after the rain. You've explained why they lined up like that too. It was certainly a strange sight.

My husband calls them turkey buzzards too. But you're right, they are actually vultures--in every sense. Still, someone's gotta do that clean-up work!

Thanks for the enlightenment! That's twice this week you've had the information I needed.

Tipper said...

Crazy buzzards.

Anonymous said...

Down the road from me is an old sycamore, long dead, yet each time you passed it you had to look twice for there were always turkey buzzards there. I have wondered why they always seem to choose the dead trees.
Thanks from me too, Matthew.
Sue's sister,

Tim said...

I'll second Matthew's explanation.

The first time I heard Kathryn Windham Tucker tell stories, she included a memory of Birmingham, that she and her family used to "count the buzzards," with the old rhyme:

One for sorrow, two for joy,
three brings letters, four, a boy.
Five for silver, six for gold.
Seven for a secret that's never been told.

And in my family, we added:
And if you see eight, there's probably something dead nearby.

Granny Sue said...

Now that's a memory, Tim! I remember my mother saying the rhyme. I had completely forgotten about Thank you for reminding me.

MK Stover said...

I'm slow -again- in reading blogs, but I'll chime in anyway...
Matthew is right, only I can't tell what color their heads are from your picture. If they are red-headed, they are Turkey Vultures; if they have black heads, they are Black Vultures (still bald, but harder to tell since the black color of their skin blends with their feathers).
These are beautiful birds!
The Black Vultures have been increasing their range and are much more common around here now than they used to be. We have quite a few around here and folks are always surprised to find out that such a majestic looking flyer is a vulture (clean-up crews need more recognition and gratitude).
I did quite a bit of research on vultures for my book, Vultures (and one of these days I hope to get it published).

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