Birds – Turkey Vulture

(Cathartes aura)


Length—30 inches; wing spread about 6 feet.

Male and Female —Blackish brown; wing coverts and linings grayish; head and neck naked and red, from livid crimson to pale cinnamon, and usually with white specks; base of bill red, and end dead white; feet flesh colored. Head of female covered with grayish brown, fur-like feathers. Young darker than adults; bill and skin of head dark and the latter downy. Nestlings of yellowish white.

Range—Temperate North America, from Atlantic to Pacific, rarely so far north as British Columbia; southward to Patagonia and Falkland Islands. Casual in New England.

Season—Permanent resident, except at- extreme northern limit of range.

Floating high in air, with never a perceptible movement of its widespread wings, as it circles with majestic, unimpassioned grace in a great spiral, this common buzzard of our southern states suggests by its flight the very poetry of motion, while its terrestrial habits of scavenger are surely the very prose of existence. In the air the bird is unsurpassed for grace, as, rising with the wind, with only the slightest motion of its great, flexible, upturned wings, it sails around and around, for hours at a time, at a height of two or three hundred feet; then descending in a long sweep, rises again with the same calm, effortless soaring that often carries it beyond our sight through the thin, summer clouds. Humboldt recorded that not even the condor reaches greater heights beyond the summits of the Andes than this buzzard, which often joins its South American relative in its dizzy sport. Since the buzzard is gregarious, there are usually a dozen great birds amusing themselves by wheeling through space in pursuit of pleasure, and abandoning themselves to the amusement with tireless ecstasy. Is it not probable that so much exercise is taken to help digest the enormous amount of carrion bolted ? For this reason, it is thought, the wood ibis soars and gyrates.

Other birds have utilitarian motives for keeping in the air; several of the hawks, for example, do indeed sail about in a similar graceful spiral flight, notably the red-tailed species, but a sudden swoop or dive proves that its slow gyrations were made with an eye directly fastened on a dinner. The crow soars to fight the hawk that carries off its young; the king-bird dashes upward to pursue the crow ; but, amidst the quarrels and cruelties of other birds, the turkey buzzard sails serenely on its way, molested by none, since it attacks none, and makes no enemies, feeding as it does, for the most part, on carrion that none grudge it. The youngest chickens in the barnyard show no alarm when a turkey buzzard alights in their midst. They know that no more harmless creature exists. It is the most common bird in the South, being protected there by law in consideration of its service to the cities’ street cleaning departments, which, in some places where Colonel Waring’s methods are unheard of, it constitutes in the main. Every field has its buzzards soaring overhead and casting their shadows, like clouds, on the grain below. Depending on their services, the farmers allow the dead horse, or pig, or chicken to lie where it drops, for the vultures to peck at until the bones are as clean as if purified by an antiseptic. Fresh meat has no attractions for them; their preference is for flesh sufficiently foetid to aid their sight in searching for food, and on such they will gorge until often unable to rise from the ground. When disturbed in the act of overhauling a rubbish heap in the environs of the city, for the bits of garbage that no goat would touch, they express displeasure at a greedy rival by blowing through the nose, making a low, hissing sound or grunt, the only noise they ever utter, and by lifting their wings in a threatening attitude. With both beak and claws capable of inflicting painful injury, the buzzard resorts to the loathsome trick of disgorging the foul contents of its stomach on an intruder.

This automatic performance is practised even by the youngest fledglings when disturbed in the nest. It certainly is a most effective protection. Petrels also practise it, but not so commonly.

The turkey buzzard shows a decided preference for warm latitudes, never nesting farther north than New Jersey on the Atlantic coast, though, strangely enough, it has penetrated into the interior so far as British Columbia. Lewis and Clarke met it about the falls of the Oregon, and it is still not uncommon on the Pacific slope. Nevertheless, it is about the shambles of towns in the West Indies and other hot countries that the buzzard finds life the pleasantest. It has the tropical vice of laziness, so closely allied to cowardliness, and lives where there is the Ieast possible necessity for exercising the stronger virtues. Our soldiers in the war with Spain tell of the final touch of horror given to the Cuban battle-fields where their wounded and dead comrades fell, by the gruesome vultures that often were the first to detect a corpse lying unseen among the tall grass.

As night approaches, one buzzard after another flies toward favorite perches in the trees, preferably dead ones, and settles, with much flapping of wings, on the middle branches ; then stretching its body and walking along the roost like a turkey, until it arrives at the chosen spot, it hisses or grunts through its nostrils at the next arrival, whose additional weight frequently snaps the dead branch and compels a number of the great birds to repeat the prolonged process of settling to sleep. But, very frequently, the traveller in the South notices buzzards perched, like dark spectres, on the chimneys of houses, at night, especially in winter, in order to warm their sensitive bodies by the rising smoke, and, after a rain, they often spread their wings over the flues to dry their water-soaked feathers. This spread-eagle attitude is also taken, anywhere the bird hap-pens to be, when the sun comes out after a drenching shower.

Without exerting themselves to form a nest, the buzzards seek out a secluded swamp, palmetto “scrub,” sycamore grove, or steep and sunny hillside, and deposit from one to three eggs, usually two, in the cavity of a stump, or lay them directly on the ground, under a bush, or on a rock—anywhere, in fact, that necessity urges. Rotten wood is a favorite receptacle, but the angular bricks of ruined chimneys are not disdained. The eggs are of a dull yellowish white, irregularly blotched with chocolate brown markings, chiefly at the larger end. Very rarely eggs are found without these markings. Laying aside, for a time, his slothful ways, the male carefully attends his sitting mate. As a colony of buzzards, when nesting, indulges its offensive defensive action most relentlessly, few, except scientists, care to make a close study of the birds’ nesting habits.