Bird Identification – Turkey Vulture – Turkey Buzzard

Every child south of Mason and Dixon’s line knows this big buzzard that sails serenely with its companions in great circles, floating high overhead, now rising, now falling, with scarcely a movement of its wide-spread wings. In the air, it expresses the very poetry of motion. No other bird is more graceful and buoyant. One could spend hours watching its fascinating flight. But surely its earthly habits express the very prose of existence; for it may be seen in the company of other dusky scavengers, walking about in the roads of the smaller towns and villages, picking up refuse; or, in the fields, feeding on some dead animal. Relying upon its good offices, the careless farmer lets his dead pig or horse or chicken lie where it dropped, knowing that buzzards will speedily settle on it and pick its bones clean. Our soldiers in the war with Spain say that the final touch of horror on the Cuban battlefields was when the buzzards, that were wheeling overhead, suddenly dropped where their wounded or dead comrades fell.

Because it is so helpful in ridding the earth of decaying matter, the law and the Southern people, white and coloured, protect the vulture. Its usefulness is more easily seen and understood than that of many smaller birds of greater value which, alas! are a target for every gunner. Consequently, it is perhaps the commonest bird in the South, and tame enough for the merest tyro in bird lore to learn that it is about two and a half feet long, with a wing spread of fully six feet; that its head and neck are bare and red like a turkey’s, and that its body is covered with dusky feathers edged with brown—an ungainly, unlovely creature out of its element, the air. Another sable scavenger, the black vulture or carrion crow, of similar habits, but with a more southerly range, is common in the Gulf States.

Because it feeds on carrion that not even a goat grudges it, and is too lazy and cowardly to pick a quarrel, the buzzard has no enemies. Although classed among birds of prey, it does not frighten the smallest chick in the poultry yard when it flops down beside it. With beak and claws capable of gashing painful wounds, it never uses them for defence, but resorts to the disgusting trick of throwing up the contents of its stomach over any creature that comes too near. When a colony of the ever-sociable buzzards are nesting, you may be very sure no one cares to make a close study of their young.