I had developed an affection for young buzzards even before reading Katie Fallon’s book “Vulture.”
Yes, I acknowledge that vulture is the proper term for these birds that are as ugly as a mud fence when ripping apart a rotting deer carcass, but in an instant become a vision of grace and beauty when they take to the air. I prefer the term “buzzard” because I often find these birds in the infant stage and the word buzzard fits better into our communication than the sinister sounding term “vulture.” (“Awww –wook at the widdle baby buvvvards…”)
Then there’s the smell. No, buzzards aren’t really lacking in birdie hygiene. Think about it –they’re the last stop on the vegetable-animal-mineral cycle.
As for their droppings, there’s really not a whole lot left – only a few basic elements like phosphorus, calcium, carbon; you get the idea.
However, a buzzard’s natural means of defense is to discharge the contents of its stomach.
Sound harmless enough? Just wait a minute. An adult buzzard once did this toward me from a high barn timber.
This bird had evidently been dining on a rotted carp along the river. Being from the coast, I found the fish smell at first to be somewhat pleasant. Ha! So there, buzzard.
As I worked in this barn, though, the image of a brilliant, foaming surf that the fragrance first evoked turned into a stagnant tidal pool of potato chip bags and discarded washing machines. My head started pounding and my stomach churned. I had to get out of there.
Katie Fallon wrote about surprising 2 baby buzz – I mean vultures – in the attic of an abandoned farmhouse. As her head emerged through the hatchway in the floor, the birds each discharged a little pile in front of themselves then stood there looking somewhat bewildered as to what to do next. “Little darlins’” was her initial response.
Anyway, most of the following may sound like review to some readers. The place is the often-mentioned private 1950s farm museum near Middleburg, Va. One feature of the place that I find particularly fascinating is the barn. It’s really 2 barns – one built in the 1870s and a 2nd barn built onto it in 1952.
The outer wall of the 1870s barn enclosed by the later addition is preserved just as it was on that summer day in 1952 when it last saw sunshine. While the other 3 outer walls of the old barn continue to weather, this wall is still proudly sporting its red paint with white trim from the postwar era.
Someday, I’ll get a photo of the “1952 Wall” for Review readers. I’m not equipped to do this scene justice, but Antique Power and Vintage Truck magazines regularly hire professional photographers to assist me with technical articles. Maybe I can snag one of these for a sideline shot.
Come to think of it, Progressive Farmer, People Magazine, the Loudoun Times Mirror, West Virginia PBS and even Oprah Winfrey’s crew have shot footage at the farm, so somebody might get a shot of that wall where time stopped 65 years ago.
But it won’t be in April. According to the Virginia Wildlife officials, April is when buzzards nest. If a mother buzzard should casually follow us into the barn, we would be required by law to relinquish total access to the barn to this federally protected bird and her friends.
The family that owns the farm has sealed off the barn to prevent buzzards from nesting there. I don’t find the effect at all pleasant. Moreover, it doesn’t work – blocking only foxes and feral cats, thus allowing the pigeon population to explode.
Buzzards still find their way in – nature always wins over man in the long run – yay. A few weeks ago, while mowing with the farm’s 1949 Farmall C, I noticed an adult buzzard perched on the dovecote atop the 1870s barn. The bird’s attention seemed to be drawn toward something on the ground. It was necessary that the Farmall and I pass directly under the drip line of the steep barn roof.
“Don’t even think about it.” I called to the big bird. Indeed, with a little attention to timing and trajectory, I was a sitting duck should the bird decide to blow groceries.
Fortunately, the monster bird did not deploy its natural weapon. However, the object of its attention, the fledgling buzzard, about the size of a large chicken walking about in the tall grass, tossed its cookies.
The circuit I was mowing was a half-mile long so I had plenty of time to catch my breath before again passing through the toxic cloud. The bird walked a short distance away from the tractor with each pass.
Hours later, as I was almost done, I noticed that though the smell remained, the bird was gone. The adult bird was still perched on the dovecote atop the barn. Making another round, I noticed the familiar shadow of a big bird flying overhead.
I looked up to see this bird with its shiny new black feathers in perfect flight – soaring and circling and, I would imagine, having a blast.
This buzzard, this vulture – this magnificent bird – had learned to fly while I watched. I felt honored. The young buzzard proceeded to land on the new-mown grass, tripped, stumbled then spread its wings in an effort to correct its balance.
Composure regained, it stood straightening its feathers. Little darlin’.
He’ll need to work on that landing, though.
Note: Since we have a little space left, let’s touch on a more serious subject; lead poisoning of vultures from gut piles left in the woods by hunters.
Katie Fallon and other researchers have pretty much nailed this down as a major cause of buzzard mortality. With all the roadkill that we produce, we need vultures.
She recommends the use of pure copper bullets. I’m not sure that such bullets exist since a rifle depends on the malleability of lead to conform to the rifling in the barrel and develop pressure. My New Jersey shooting club once came across some uranium armor piercers – probably a smaller diameter to fit through the barrel – but these would bounce all over the woods and possibly pass through an orange vest on the way.
I guess we can switch to black powder smooth-bores and shoot patched ball-bearings. Can anyone help us out here?
First published July 25, 2018.