The expression “buzzard’s luck” attached itself to President Obama in my mind around the time of the Gulf disaster, and subsequent events have strengthened the association. It connotes prolonged intractable wasn’t-for-bad-luck-I’d-have-no-luck-at-all misfortune. The classic formulation, from the buzzard’s point of view, is: “Can’t kill nothing and nothing won’t die.” A Google search picks up several sportswriters applying it, prematurely, to Bruce Bochy.
When you think about it, though, buzzards—in the vernacular sense of the turkey vulture—have it fairly easy. Killing is just not in their repertoire. They don’t have the raptorial feet they would need to handle large live prey, although there are reports of turkey vultures eating minnows, eggs, and the occasional disabled or immobilized bird. And something is always dying, somewhere within cruising range.
The buzzard thing is a matter of linguistic confusion. “Buzzard,” from the French busard, was originally used for European hawks much like our red-tailed hawk. Britain, unlike southern Europe, Africa, and Asia, has no native vultures. Somehow English colonists came to use “buzzard” for the turkey vulture and its more southerly relative the black vulture instead of the hawks. “Vulture” appears to derive from the French vautour.
Old world vultures are bare-headed carrion-eaters akin to the eagles; their resemblance to New World vultures and condors reflects convergent evolution for a scavenging lifestyle. New World vultures are now back in their old taxonomic home as a separate family in the order of diurnal birds of prey, after being classified with the storks for a while.
If turkey vultures and black vultures ever had a serious run of bad luck, it was about a century ago when they were suspected of being predators of young livestock and vectors of anthrax, hog cholera, and foot-in-mouth disease. In Texas alone, over 100,000 vultures were slaughtered after having been lured to walk-in traps. In fact, only the more aggressive black vulture is a stock killer, and later research established that most pathogens are killed in the turkey vulture’s digestive tract. Vultures are still subject to persecution, as in 1989 at Disney World, for aesthetic reasons. Vehicular collisions remain an occupational hazard.
But there are those who appreciate vultures. You’ve probably heard of the annual celebration on March 15 when the turkey vultures return to Hinckley, Ohio. Wenonah, New Jersey also hosts an East Coast Vulture Festival in March, at which the birds are celebrated with art exhibits and dance performances. I am trying hard to visualize that. The western counterpart of these events is the Kern River Valley Autumn Nature and Vulture Festival in September (kern.audubon.org/tvfest), celebrating the southward passage of at least 25,000 migrant turkey vultures.
Turkey vultures do, in fact, perform a courtship dance. The male and female face each other, bills gaping and wings raised, and alternately jump up and down while “yapping,” as the observer described it. Lacking a syrinx, these birds have a limited vocal range. Mostly they hiss; whines and grunts are also reported.
Like many large birds, turkey vultures mate for life, although pairs in migratory populations appear not to spend the winter together.
They consistently return to the same nest site. One survey found that 87 percent of vulture nests west of the hundredth meridian were in rock outcrops. Typically, all the nests located in the Contra Costa County Breeding Bird Atlas survey were on cliff ledges or in casves. In wooded areas, they’ll use thickets, hollow logs, and the abandoned nests of other birds. A few nests in human structures have been reported. Marin County atlasers found nests in a burned-out hollow at the base of a redwood, the hollowed-out trunk of a living oak, and a cavity under a log.
Two eggs is a typical clutch size, incubated by both parents. When disturbed at the nest, young vultures stomp their feet, hiss, and often throw up. If that doesn’t deter the intruder, they bluff an attack. Their final line of defense is feigning death, sometimes also employed by incubating adults.
The young are fed carrion, of course. Turkey vultures are eclectic enough in their diet to experiment with palm nuts, juniper berries, and rotting pumpkins, but mostly it’s dead animals. Naturalists have debated for years about whether these birds locate their food by sight or smell. Field experiments indicate that smell plays a major role: turkey vultures are better at finding concealed carcasses than black vultures. The olfactory bulb of the turkey vulture’s brain is relatively large among birds, larger than in black vultures and condors.
At least one natural gas company has exploited vultures to locate pipeline leaks by injecting ethyl mercaptan, which draws the birds. An observer reported that turkey vultures in Cuba “were frequently seen around a large specimen of Stapelia nobilis, a plant whose flowers reek of the smell of rotten meat.” (Ron has a couple of Stapelias in pots on the office windowsill, but so far they have not attracted vultures.) Smell wouldn’t help vultures find fresh carcasses, though. To that end, they appear to keep an eye on the behavior of crows, ravens, and other scavengers.
Not a bad life, in short, if you don’t mind the taste of carrion.