Volume 13, Issue 28 ~ July 14 - 20, - 2005

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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

There’s Room for All at Mother Nature’s Table
For hours at a time it patrols the air; when conditions are right, it may never need to flap its wings at all.
—Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura: Reader’s Digest Book of North American Birds
Sometimes you take things for granted. Like the turkey buzzard. The other day when it was hot, and a slight easterly breeze stirred overhead, I spotted three soaring turkey vultures high over the peninsula that separates Rock and Stoney creeks.

I had better things to do, but curiosity got the better of me. How long can a buzzard soar without a booster shot from its wings? I glanced at my watch; it was 10:17, then my eyes glued on the bird closest to me. For 15 minutes, an hour, then another hour. At 12:40 I conceded. Not once had I seen so much as a flap of a wing. It just rode the air currents.     

I wondered if the long soar was because it hadn’t spied anything edible in the woodland patches below; perhaps it had seen something wounded, and was waiting for it to die. Or perhaps it simply enjoyed soaring.

I’ll never know, but to me it was a reminder that I share the environment hereabouts with a creature that many think plays no meaningful role in the overall scheme of things. It’s ugly, and just the thought of its diet would as a wildlife biologist once told me “gag a maggot.” But in more recent years, the buzzard has gained respect. It is part of nature’s sanitation system.

Until the 20th century, members of one sect in India used buzzards for disposal of human bodies. This bird, you see, prefers carrion: If it’s dead, it’s a meal. Yet it’s a bit more fussy than its almost look-alike, smaller but more aggressive cousin the black vulture, Coragyps atratus, also present in these parts.
Birds of a Feather
The black vulture, or buzzard as it is also commonly referred to, apparently has little if any sense of smell, which might account for its less finicky eating habits. It’s also a bird that is rarely found north of Pennsylvania. The turkey brand thrives as far north as Hudson Bay.

Predominately black feathered with white on the underside of its wing tips, the turkey buzzard has a completely bald, red-pebbled head. The black buzzard has a lighter colored head and silvery wing tips. Why are both of them bald? It’s nature’s gift. Were their heads feathered, they would be terribly messy seeing they spend much of their time rooting around in rotting carcasses.

Other than those differences and a bit longer neck on the black vulture, they’re not easy to distinguish from afar.

Ugly as they may be, they are graceful in flight. The wingspread of an adult turkey buzzard is six feet; a foot less for the black buzzard. Like most soaring birds their bodies are small (though the black vulture is a bit more stocky). It’s their feathers that give the illusion of size.

The turkey buzzard usually sails closer to the ground, which some attribute to its ability to smell as well as see carrion. The black buzzard flaps its wings more and generally soars higher to get a better view of anything that looks like ameal on the ground. Both have fine eyesight.

There are other less noticeable differences between the two. The turkey buzzard is more timid and prefers to stay over woods, mountains and farm country. Its wings are narrower and longer, which makes it a bit more graceful in flight. The black buzzard, on the other hand, is brazen. It doesn’t mind open country or people. At times, I have practically walked upon one feeding — before it took off in a cumbersome and noisy flight that doesn’t appear graceful until it’s high overhead.

Both of these buzzards are voracious, downright greedy. They have been known to gulp down so much food that their filled crops weighed them down. So after a good feed, they can’t fly for some time. When their crops are filled, as I’ve seen with a few, they hang over their chests like stuffed sacks.

Turkey vultures are more apt to fly alone or in groups of two or three, while blacks work in larger numbers. Both roost at night in groups, usually in trees, with shoulders humped.

Oftimes when perched by day, vulture have their wings outstretched, which some attribute to drying out. However, I have seen them do this in both wet and dry weather.

They are not known to spread disease and seldom attack living creatures.

Though they’re classified as members of the hawk family, vultures don’t have the speed of hawks. Nor do they need it. Whatever they want for food usually isn’t alive — though both varieties occasionally take live small mammals and birds.
Somebody’s Got to Do It
Because the black buzzard often flies at higher altitudes, it is capable of capitalizing on the efforts of the lower flying turkey buzzards — an occurrence I have observed on numerous occasions. The ever-observant blacks detect when their turkey counterparts sight in on a meal because the latter break their soaring pattern to begin their descent.

Unless the turkey buzzards eat quickly, the bolder blacks simply move in and take over. More than once I have observed a pair of buzzards momentarily give up feeding to drive each other away — only to both lose out as a third moved in quickly, grabbed the spoils and departed.
The Wrong Turkey
Some years back, West Virginia game wardens investigating out-of-season wild turkey poaching complaints surprised some hunters from Pittsburgh partaking of a feast of freshly killed gobbler.

The wildlife enforcement officers figured they had an excellent case — until they rounded up feathers for evidence. Something was amiss. The feathers were those of a turkey, but not the kind they thought.

They came from a turkey vulture. The amused wardens figured the astonished city slickers endured sufficient punishment just by being made aware of what they were eating. They marked the case closed, and moved on.

How times have changed; today those hunters would be fined $500 for potting a buzzard, a bird that enjoys protection on both the federal and state levels. That’s about double the fine for taking a wild turkey out of season.

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