Feeding The Buzzards


Walking over the brow of a hill in my pasture, I came upon the most ghastly, heart-stopping sight I’ve ever seen on the farm, or anywhere else for that matter. Perched on six fence posts in a row were six turkey vultures, alias Cathartis aura, or what we call buzzards. What made the scene so awesome was that when the big birds saw me, they raised their wings above their heads, as if preparing to launch into the air, but then just remained motionless. Each set of those wings spans some six feet from tip to tip, making the birds look bigger than eagles, bigger than condors, bigger to my startled eyes than Boeing 707s. Think of the mythical Thunderbird of American Indian folklore. Now think of six of them in a row at eye level, transfixing you with beady stares from stony eyes set in flaming red heads, surrounded by black feathers of doom. Adding to the ghoulish scene were more buzzards on the ground, tearing into the innards of a dead sheep, dragging its intestines out over the grass, quarreling with each other, all of them intent on gobbling down more sheep innards than the others. I was remembering how my father warned me as a child to stay way from buzzards. “To protect its young, a buzzard will puke on you,” he said. “Smells worse than skunk spray.”  As I backed off, thinking of getting a camera, the raised wings flapped, the feet pushed off, and the icons of doomsday took to the air and silently drifted away.

Buzzards are birds of contrast. Soaring in the air, their earthy clumsy ugliness is transformed into majestic grace. They know how to ride the thermal air currents and glide effortlessly for hours high in the sky. Watching them with binoculars is more exciting than watching skydivers or meteor showers.

There is something more mystifying about buzzards to me than the sight of them. They are almost as ubiquitous as robins, with a range from the southern tip of South America to far up in Canada. Even though they are awesome to behold, humans for the most part give them scant attention. Buzzards are beneficial on the farm, cleaning up dead animals almost before the carcasses can rot and stink up the pasture fields. (On my farm, they get to eat a lot of dead raccoons.) Although quite vulnerable to human depredation, especially when they linger along the highways, cleaning up roadkill, risking becoming roadkill themselves, they are actually growing in number in most areas.

I have a theory about why we pretend not to see buzzards up in the sky, watching us. They remind us that our days are numbered. On the other hand, artists, always uncommonly aware of the nearness of death, are often fascinated with buzzards. Painter Karl Kuerner is one of them. He took the buzzard photo accompanying this essay, showing a situation I would not otherwise believe. Behind the picture is a long story that punctures the idea that buzzards are images of death. This one showed up on the Kuerners’ roof one morning. It had a band on its leg so they figured it must be an escape from some kind of bird sanctuary. They put out raw meat for it and it came right down and ate it. They made a pet of it and named it Buzz. It liked to perch on the deck railing next to Louise and run its beak through her hair, as if preening. Louise (who has since passed away) could eventually feed it right out of her hand, as the photo shows. Karl painted his well-known “A Buzzard In Her Lap” showing “Buzz” sitting comfortably in Louise’s lap.

Karl lives on the farm where he grew up near Chadds Ford, Pa. and has been fascinated with buzzards since boyhood. He likes to recall the time he put some spoiled meat out in the pasture outside his studio. “The buzzards came tumbling out of the sky and were all over that meat,” he says. “Looked just like a bunch of football players trying to recover a fumble.”

Buzzards are symbols of the basic truth about agriculture. Farming is full of exuberant life but death is always near at hand. One way or another, figuratively or literally, we all end up feeding the buzzards.


Marsha M. not only are their heads featherless for the very reason you cite (they bury them in a carcass), but they have giant holes in their beaks to allow them to clear any rotten meat and prevent them from getting stuffed up. Also amazing — their shit is antiseptic, and it drips down their legs and prevents harmful bacteria from moving from the corpse up onto them. Don’t be grossed out — aren’t these incredible evolutionary developments, allowing these scavengers to thrive over perhaps millions of years? The ancestors of Ohio turkey vultures and black vultures hovered over the Hopewell and Adena dead two thousand years before we European Ohioans arrived to marvel at them. Thanks Gene for all your good writing — and for noticing and celebrating the disgusting but essential and marvelous vulture.

Some kids around here brought a hatchling buzzard back from its nest and hand raised it. The bird would perch on their wrist as if it were a very large parrot and take food from their hands.

Gene, I particularly love this article, for me a memento mori, essential for understanding REALITY. Thanks.

Actually Buzzards will in fact kill animals,the short tailed ones are especially bad about attacking a calf or baby goat as its being born and just after its born.They migrate thru my area about the same time as my meat goats are kidding in the Spring the LGDs usually are able to run them off.

    Those “short-tailed” ones are black vultures and are not related to the turkeys. I do not like too many blacks around for that reason. The turkeys are cool.

In the past year, I’ve come to respect deeply the turkey vultures around my place…partly because they’re majestic, as you say…and partly, too, because unlike most other creatures, they do not kill other creatures in order to eat…they wait until death comes in its own way. I find that moving…the buzzards, whom so few love and so many fear, are birds of peace rather than birds of prey…

    Beth, what a wonderful insight. Had you ever thought of how the honeybee also does no harm to others (unless defending it’s hive from intruders)? In fact, bees do not even harm the plants from which they gather nectar and pollen but leave them better off.
    Nice to contemplate this after a night of warding off the more murderous wildlife from the chicken coop!

Logsdon, looking at it with a dash of human mysticism and animism maybe that up-close-never-before-seen encounter you got was a vision of the human-endeavour-turned-detritus that nature will soon start recycling en masse.

Hopefully their taking up to the air and silently drifting away means your years of resilience learning and practice will see you through it all, or most of it, as an observer and chronicler of those events. Wish same could be said for most of us, but not all of us can be observers, most of us will recycling material in that event.

Be Well, Be Safe.

When I answer the phone on weekends (since I have a home business and attept to sound professional), I say “Queen of Buzzard’s Glory!” I’ve seen more than a dozen of them on posts with wings raised, usually early in the morning. My theory is that they’re drying those big wings. And the gatherings in the fall are aMAzing. One day I saw at least 50-75 birds congregated in the trees, on posts, anywhere they could land within a half mile radius. What a great sight. They wheel over our home on the ridge here in SE Ohio so very gracefully. And it still gives me a start when I’m out in the garden or field and a shadow crosses over the ground below me as they fly above. Bless those buzzards. Your posters here are so right. They have an important job to do. I figure their heads and necks are featherless since who’d want hair when you’re plunging your head into rotting carrion! Euuuuuwww. All the best to all. — Buzzard Queen

In Miami, FL a large flock of turkey vultures nests in the upper stories of the city government building. Daily they’re visible as they soar in the hot currents above downtown.

One of the harbingers of Spring is the reappearance of the Turkey Vultures. The first sighting is usually above a flat to the northwest of Boalsburg. They will be soaring in a fairly large group dead ahead of me as I crest the hill leaving the “city” on the way home. This year that first happened in February. Way early for some one who grew up waiting for the news from Hinkley , Ohio on the buzzard’s return on March 19th each year. (More legend than fact?)

I watch them almost daily and note that my chickens and ducks pay them no mind while a hawk sends my girls scurrying.

Via one of our best writers, William Faulkner:

“If I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.”

thetinfoilhatsociety August 15, 2012 at 10:40 am

A good friend once reminded me when my female Angora bunny died suddenly that if you own livestock, you will also have deadstock. A truth we all too often forget.

The buzzards here in Arizona have absolutely no fear of people; the ravens though they seem to have a healthy respect for.

It always seems that the buzzards take a special interest in my prospects every time I ascend a ladder, or work on a steep roof. In addition to recognizing actual death, perhaps they can also sense imminent death in part time farmers, or at least feel it is worth their while to hang around long enought to take advantage of any opportunty that may arise from my poor decision making.

Turkey buzzards are amazing. I’d been fascinated by them for years, first in Mexico (where they have the great name of zopilotes), then when I was a frequent visitor to south-eastern Arizona. But always seeing them at a distance, in the air or at the tops of huge inaccessible cottonwoods.

I got the full (and quite terrifying) zopilote effect one early evening eleven or twelve years ago, sitting alone up on a hill near Bisbee. Suddenly they appeared as if from nowhere, a dozen or so, circling round me, very close. And very silent. I was rooted to the spot. They circled away after about five minutes (seemed like aeons), probably after realising I was quite alive.

I’ve had even more respect for them after that experience. Really glad they didn’t vomit on me.

Thanks for reminding me of them, Gene. I’ve been back in my native England for over a decade now and we have buzzards here (now the most common bird of prey on these islands). It’s a totally different bird (we don’t have vultures) with the Latin name Buteo buteo, and eats small mammals and carrion.

You’re right Buzzards do bring us to the reality of life,I have thought as I looked over a carcass that the Buzzards have worked over,that will be me one day.

Thank goodness for the buzzards or the countryside would be a bloody, stinking mess!

How appropriate that its name “cathartes” means “purifier”… ^-^
Wild life in America is so much tamer than in Western Europe, vultures have been hunted down near extinction there unless you live in some forlorn place in the mountains.

Still, there are some unexpected surprises: I was watching a flock of griffon vultures gliding in the Pyrenees once, when suddenly I noticed one of them was actually the rare and beautiful lammergeier.

Your father was absolutely right about buzzard puke. While driving home from a day at the lake in VT we “trapped” one between our vehicle and the tree canopy. It flew in front of us until it could fly into open sky but did manage to puke on our vehicle on its way out. And yes it did smell worse than skunk spray and ruined the paint on the truck. It also came as a total surprise to us. We now watch them with fascination from a distance with new found respect.

my husband loves watching them as well, both in the air and on the ground. many times, i will be driving up the lane and see buzzards circling in the vicinity of our home – “buzzard theater”. dh has picked up some road kill and put it on the perimeter of our property so he can watch them soar overhead before they dive in for dinner. then, after the buzzards have eaten their fill, we can watch them stumble around like drunks after a bender.

Media vita in morte sumus (in the midst of life we are in death) and the buzzards know it.

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