One of the "buzzard trees" across from the cottage.
One morning soon, I'll look out one of the living room's river-view windows, and the tops of the big sycamores on the island across from the cottage will be empty. The last of the resident turkey vultures, with whom I share this stretch of stream for most of the year, will have packed up and departed for milder climes. I'll be buzzardless until next March.
When I moved here four summers ago, I didn't know one of the riverbank's bonus features was a clan of turkey vultures who roost nightly in the trees directly across the channel. I also didn't know I'd come to so enjoy their habits and company.
Turkey vultures are one of two vulture species in Ohio, the other being the black vulture, which is similar in appearance in overall shape, but a bit smaller and has a dark, rather than a red, turkey-like head. Another difference between the two is that black vultures hunt by sight, while turkey vultures find their meals of the recently deceased via their keen sense of smell—one of the few birds to possess such a highly developed ability of odor detection. A big turkey vulture has a wingspan of six feet and weighs upwards of 6 pounds. Their lifespan in the wild can exceed 16 years, and at least one captive bird passed the 33-year mark. They lack a voice box, so the only sounds they utter are hisses and grunts.
Lazing around, taking some sun, discussing breakfast.
There's simply no charitable way to put this…as looks go, turkey vultures are ugly. Not "cute" ugly, just plain old whupped-with-an-ugly-stick ugly.
But only on the ground. Put a turkey vulture in the air and there's no bird more capable and beautiful in flight. The blue sky was made for the soaring turkey vulture. To watch them tilt and turn, wheel and dip, almost never flapping their wings, yet holding aloft with grace and elegance and absolute mastery of form, it makes you believe bird and sky are nothing short of complementary elements, each created to showcase the other.
I can't begin to tell you how many hours I spend each year just watching those buzzards fly—riding the wind as if it were their's alone. More than any other bird I know, turkey vultures seem to delight in flying, to take great pleasure in their prowess—to experience a sheer joy while ignoring gravity.
Time and again I've observed them coming home in the afternoon. They appear high, little more than dark dihedral smudges against the bright sky canopy. Sometimes they wheel outward in great loops, spiraling, lifting, then swooping down—coming closer and closer to their roost trees. Before settling, they might make make only a single low pass, barely clearing the treetops, or they might elect to make several. They then often land and sit on a limb for while, only to abruptly leap back into the air and swoop and soar a bit more before sitting down again. They seem to take turns doing this—three or four or a dozen birds in the nearby air at once, circling, showing off, landing…to be replaced by other birds who do the same thing; trading moves like teenagers on skateboards: Look at me! Bet you can't do this! Oh, yeah…just watch!
Masters of the sky…
Buzzards are not early risers. They hang around the roost tree until midmorning, perhaps spreading their wings and catching a few rays of sun. When the spirit finally moves them to get their feathered butts in gear and head out to reconnoiter a bite of brunch, they take off in twos and threes—though if the weather is rainy, they might hunker down for most of the day. In the afternoon, several hours before sunset, they begin returning. Definitely not workaholics.
The first year I lived here, when the buzzards and I were just getting acquainted, I kept trying to estimate their numbers. Have you ever tried to count turkey vultures on the wing—coming, going, circling, soaring, swooping, constantly trading places? Or for that matter, buzzards finally settled in on their evening roost—dark shapes, like some sort of feathered fruit, glimpsed here and there within the dense cover of leaves and limbs?
Here's the one-word answer: impossible. My best count—what I, toward the end of that first season, figured to be a pretty good guesstimate—was somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five birds. Then autumn's leaves began to fall. Talk about surprise! The count rose from twenty-five to thirty, then forty, then fifty. Down the leaves came, up the count went. Sixty, seventy, ninety…a hundred! My Lord, just how many turkey vultures were sitting over there in the denuding sycamores? I hadn't been harboring a clan, I'd been harboring a legion!
The final tally, taken on the last morning before their disappearance, was 177 turkey vultures! And I'd be willing to bet that even with most of the leaves down, I still missed a few birds—possibly more than a few.
Home before the storm.
Alas, it's again getting to be about that time of year. Too soon my beloved buzzards will up and depart. It's like losing a bunch of old friends without getting to see them off and wish them well on their journey. I'll miss them every day until they return.
And the trees and skies along the river will be palpably empty, diminished by their absence.