WHERE BUZZARDS ROOST
Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler by Robert Carpenter
We have never associated buzzards with anything appealing. They eat dead stuff. Technically a buzzard is a vulture, and that word summons an even uglier image. On top of that, this particular vulture is really a turkey. The bird doesn’t even have a voice box. Instead of a serenade, it seems to bully its way through life with grunts and hisses.
So why is it, then, that the people of Hinckley, Ohio, celebrate being inundated each March with huge flocks of buzzards?
It could be that the return of the buzzards at the same place and time each year is observed as one of nature’s curious phenomenons, or it could be that they signal that spring is just around the corner, or it might be that the generally misunderstood turkey vulture is rightly a praiseworthy bird.
Buzzards are nature’s sanitizing agents. After winter’s decomposition period, they return to the Hinckley area and clean it up like nothing or no one else can do. Not that Hinckley needs cleansing more than other locales, and the buzzards do work other geographies, but you can be assured that, at least during the summer months, there is nothing rotten in Hinckley.
Contrary to popular belief, turkey vultures do not kill. Their beaks and talons are not designed to rip into a fresh carcass. While most birds have sharp vision, buzzards are one of the few with a sense of smell. They locate decomposing remains, even if hidden, and then strip them clean. Their most unique feature is a digestive system that kills all viruses and bacteria in the diet–and their droppings do not carry disease. So when you see a congregation of featherless red glob-heads bobbing on road kill, remember that as ugly as they may be, they do a handsome job of sterilizing the grounds.
Every March 15, like clockwork, the buzzards return to Hinckley after their winter vacations. It must be instinctive since it’s inconceivable that buzzards can think or make logical deductions—and it started so long ago that none of these birds can remember the initial invitation.
Nearly two centuries ago, a large northern Ohio landowner—a judge from Massachusetts named Hinckley, arranged a roundup of predators that were plundering domestic animals and crops. It’s known as “The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818.” The judge and dozens of his friends (some say hundreds) encircled his acreage and converged toward the center firing their weapons as they went, driving all the wildlife into a confined space, then killing everything. They took what they wanted for food and left the remaining carcasses over winter. When the buzzards arrived in the spring, the feast apparently was so overwhelming that the event was imprinted on the inherent part of their brains because they’ve come back every year since.
Moreover, the Hinckley Reservation, which is part of Cleveland’s Metropark, is perfect for buzzards. The ninety-acre Hinckley Lake is accentuated with rocky bluffs rising at places hundreds of feet above the water. Buzzards don’t nest per se; they roost—like chickens or, well, turkeys—so the rocky ledges are an ideal habitat.
It’s odd, in a way, since this has been happening for so long, that the people of Hinckley have been commemorating the event only since 1957. It was brought to light by a reporter from the Cleveland Press, who announced the mostly unheard-of yearly occurrence a month ahead of time. When March 15 arrived, the people of Hinckley were surprised by the unexpected attention of naturalists, ornithologists, other reporters, and thousands of spectators who would have gleefully chided an inaccurate prediction. But again, the buzzards landed right on schedule. That’s when several prominent citizens, along with the Chamber of Commerce, decided that the Sunday on or immediately following March 15 would be designated Buzzard Sunday—a “blowout” to observe all the varied implications of their feathered guests. This year the 15th falls on a Sunday, so that is the day of celebration for which thousands of people are expected.
From 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., there will be a pancake and sausage breakfast at the Hinckley Elementary School, accompanied by arts and crafts shows. The chief naturalist Robert Hinkle will be the official “Buzzard Spotter” broadcasting the first coming. There is a driving tour of the roost area through the park for those wanting a closer look.
Once you’re assured they’re not looking for you, the buzzards are delightful to watch. Ungainly on the ground, they are beautiful flyers. With wingspans up to six feet, they soar on the thermals. The ratio of their wing area to body weight is so high they can glide for hours with little effort.
But it’s on the ground where they perform their greatest service. They’ve been around since day one—using their natural antiseptic ability to clean up putrid remains—preventing the spread of disease, possibly even plagues.
So, if you see a buzzard cluster at the roadside while driving to or from the Sunday celebration, give them a break/brake. They’re just doing their job.
Go to www.hinckleytwp.org for more information.