Sunday, February 01, 2009

Turkey Buzzard?

I was at Winged Dear Park several Sundays back attempting to become fit. It’s a life and death struggle sometimes and I was struck by some degree of irony when a kettle of Turkey Vulture formed up in the bright, clear sky as I huffed and puffed along, humming to myself “Stayin’ Alive” by the Beegees.

You can spot Turkey Vulture (Catharses aura) easiest by its flight pattern: the dihedral (upward) spread of its wings; the half-dozen exaggerated wing beats; its uneasy, nearly out-of-balance gliding; where there is one there’ll be a bunch. And by its two-toned wing silhouette which distinguishes it from the Black Vulture who has a white spot under the wing tip. Turkey Vulture are common and widespread. I’ve seen them in Arizona as well as Ohio--and thought all along they were focusing on our car knowing something we didn’t know. I’ve seen them glide over my house in Johnson City, Tenn., as well as rise up from the woods south of ETSU’s campus. In the summer they are everywhere and even in the winter, on cold days, Turkey Vulture is on the hunt.

By contrast, a hawk will have a flat wing spread, a solid silhouette, and is likely to be circling by itself much higher than the vultures. When you spot a kettle of vultures, look higher and you might get lucky to see a small dot against the clouds--a hawk. But, you are more likely to see a hawk sitting on a fence post or power pole.

When TV do perch, it’s right spooky. They do their “vulturing” thing made famous by Snoopy on his dog house. And because it isn’t something you see every day or along the highways, and you associate it with death, it takes a moment to recognize and to appreciate.

Turkey vultures are not good fliers. They’re slow to take off which makes them vulnerable along the interstate. (I surprised a vulture one morning as I topped a rise up by the power company’s new offices--he was in the middle of the road--but he managed to take off and miss the windshield, just barely. I think we were both surprised at a firsthand look at each other. Seen from less than three feet makes for an interesting view!) You’ll see them quite often take a half-dozen wing beats just to get up a little momentum and precious altitude. They glide great, this is true--downhill-- but seem to be too heavy for most thermals. Compared to hawks it is as if vulture body weight to wing size ratio is “high.” Intersestingly, we’re talking ounces and inches not horsepower and pounds. But, they don’t need the lifting capacity of a helicopter nor do they need to soar high like the hawks. Nor, certainly, do they need blinding speed. Think about it. Essentially, they are ground feeders that have excellent mobility.

Vultures are carrion eaters and are classed in the raptor family (hooked beak, prey on other animals). They eat the dead stuff. Buteo eats the live stuff. One good time to get a good look at vultures on the prowl is in the fall when the lakes start to drop. The kettle will cruise along the shore searching for wash up fish, dead birds, dead turtles, dead cats--any carcass on the shore. You’d think they would go hungry a lot because the shore just is not that littered with carrion. You’d think.

They are kind of ugly. The red head is made to remain clean while probing a carcass. It would seem like this ought not be possible but carrion eaters are essentially destined to eat the dead flesh and all the little gross things that go with it, yet, stay healthy themselves. Otherwise the natural cycle of rejuvination (the catharas part) would break down. Keeping a warm head in winter would seem to be a challenge.

But, for most of us, the first name we apply is “buzzard.” I reckon this comes from two sources. The first is Old English. In England, buzzard is their common name for hawk. What they call “Common Buzzard” is classed as “Buteo buteo.”In bird watching lingo, Buteos are what Americans commonly call true hawks. It is confusing and since the Turkey Vulture was a new sight for early Europeans in America it stands to reason that they lumped all the raptors into buzzard. On BBC-TV, it would be possible for a sound track to play the scream of a red-tail hawk but the voice over to mention buzzard.

The second source of the confusion of the name buzzard would be nothing other than all those thousands of Death Valley Days westerns with Gabby Hayes and Lost Dutchman Mine movies starring Ronald Reagan. The crusty old prospector is out on the Sonaran desert and he sees vultures circling over head and makes some comment about his not being dead, yet. You see and hear enough of that and it’ll take over the language. Can you imagine how sappy it would be for the prospector/ sidekick/ pal to say in front of his pardner--the Gene Autry hero type--calling the ruthless cattle rancher who is stealing all the water--legally--of course, “You dirty ol’ turkey vulture!” It just wouldn’t have that good ol’ je ne sais quoi of “You dirty ol’ buzzard!” spat out by a grubby prospector with no teeth and whose best friend is his mule.

But the name is still, like many common names, interesting in its origin. It seems to be a combination of things. Early settlers encountered a lot of turkey and it would be easy to confuse the two. They are both large. They are both bald headed. The vulture part was applied probably by some smart-aleck birder around Audubon’s time who knew it wasn’t a turkey.

An informative site is at