The Buzzards of January
If I believed in omens, the black buzzards perching on my roof might have terrified me. Two months after their sudden arrival in my neighborhood in late November 2019, these birds were already familiar acquaintances. Each morning in January as I walked the short distance from my front porch to my car parked in the driveway, I would see them roosting atop my neighbors' houses and mine. They are oddly silent creatures with grayish heads that appear too small for their hulking black bodies and vicious-looking beaks, each with a downward-facing hook at the end.
“Creepy,” a friend muttered after I described this strange morning ritual.
"Like a scene from The Birds," I replied, referring to the iconic Alfred Hitchcock thriller which features memorable scenes of terrified people walking past hundreds of crows and ravens flocking on telephone wires, fences, and roofs.
But also, not like The Birds. Hitchcock’s avian apocalypse was akin to a supernatural force, birds turning violently against humans for no apparent reason. My buzzard infestation, I learned, was entirely consistent with the behavior of these animals. I knew nothing of black buzzards at Thanksgiving, but by Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I had learned a few things about them. In an excellent 2008 Audubon article, T. Edward Nickens explains that black buzzards are attracted to suburban environments because the large volume of asphalt literally increases the availability of their food supply. Roads kill animals, and for buzzards, turkey vultures, and other carrion birds, roadkill is a veritable roadside buffet. According to Nickens, other factors attract buzzards to the suburbs. Asphalt, concrete, and other manmade materials increase the surface temperatures around them creating updrafts that soaring birds like buzzards will use to hunt for food.
As I watched these birds circling over my house throughout the month of January, I was tempted to believe that they were not the same clumsy creatures I often saw standing on my roofline and jostling for the best perch atop the chimney. I could hear them from inside my house sometimes as their feet made clunk clunk sounds on the tin chimney cover. How could these be the same magnificent black raptors I saw gliding across the sky, birds that are every bit as graceful and awe-inspiring as a hawk or an eagle in flight?
Humans have some cause to be disgusted by black buzzards. In large numbers, they are a nuisance. Their slick white excrement runs down tree trunks and telephone poles and corrodes the metal panels on cell towers. They urinate down their own legs as a means of cooling themselves. They vomit as a defense mechanism when they sense danger. From the vantage of the suburban-dwelling human, they appear to be scatological creatures—always oozing, dripping, and excreting.
But buzzards are not objectively more repulsive than any other animal. They appear ominous for another reason, I think. They remind us that we are not so different from that deer carcass we saw lying on the side of the highway on the drive home from work, the one with two or three buzzards standing around it. We are similarly made of skin and muscle and sinew, and if not for the civilized conventions around caring for the dead, it might be us being torn apart by those perfectly evolved beaks.
The buzzard lives in symbiosis with humans, always feeding on dead things at the margins—literally at the margins, because where do we see buzzards most often? Standing in the breakdown lane, that useless strip of pavement that is the home for cast-off things—empty soda cans, cigarette butts, black strips of blown truck tires, the occasional discarded bag of garbage or used-up mattress. It is easy to forget that this network of pavement and its bustle of automobiles is also a vast death-dealing machine. This is certainly true for humans. The National Safety Council reports that in 2019, 38,800 Americans died in car accidents, a number that is typical of the annual slaughter that is now normalized as the hidden cost of the American love affair with the automobile. But roads also deal death to other animals large and small whose corpses will not be quickly whisked away to a morgue when their bodies are smashed up by car tires or front grills. In fact, our entire way of life – every time we climb into that car in the driveway and turn the key in the ignition — produces the mass slaughter of animals as a byproduct (some estimates put the number at a million vertebrate animals killed by cars every day in the U.S.).
About a mile from my house, the main road passes through a portion of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. This is the spot where Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to stop General William Tecumseh Sherman‘s march through Georgia. Sherman was himself a notorious death dealer, but in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, his soldiers suffered the heaviest casualties. When the battle was over, 3,000 Union soldiers and 1,000 Confederates lay dead on the battlefield.
As I write this, I am thinking that buzzards care nothing for the color of a uniform.
A Confederate private named Samuel Watkins recalled this scene from the battlefield after three days of fighting on Kennesaw Mountain.
On the third morning the Yankees raised a white flag, asked an armistice to bury their dead, not for any respect either army had for the dead, but to get rid of the sickening stench. I get sick now when I happen to think about it. Long and deep trenches were dug, and hooks made from bayonets crooked for the purpose, and all the dead were dragged and thrown pell mell into these trenches. Nothing was allowed to be taken off the dead, and finely dressed officers, with gold watch chains dangling over their vests, were thrown into the ditches. During the whole day both armies were hard at work, burying the Federal dead….
He does not mention the presence of buzzards, but they were a common sight after Civil War battles. Thousands of black vultures and turkey vultures flocked to Gettysburg after that battle, mainly to feast on the decomposing corpses of horses which were not as readily removed from the battlefield as the bodies of soldiers. Historians have speculated that the large population of buzzards in Gettysburg today are descended from the ones that were drawn to the area by the epic battle. Are the birds who circled my neighborhood in January descendants of the buzzards that no doubt circled over the scene private Watkins described? It seems entirely likely to me.
I mention the park for another reason. Because the road essentially cuts the park in two, animals—deer in particular—are often struck by cars as they cross from one side to the other. The buzzards who were flocking on the cell tower were less than a mile from this area. They could catch an updraft, and with very little effort, be circling over a deer or squirrel carcass within about a minute.
My nine-year-old daughter recently spied two buzzards picking at a dead possum as we drove through the park on the way to her piano lesson.
”What are those birds, Daddy?“
My response was matter-of-fact.
“They eat dead things,“ I said.
She considered this fact for a moment.
“Are there many dead things around here?“
I explained the road and the park and the danger the road poses to animals crossing it. She understood this, I think.
“Do they ever eat people“?
“No honey,“ I said.
This is a white lie, but I do not wish to discuss the more disturbing nuances of buzzard-human relations with my daughter at this stage of her life. It is enough that she contemplates the existence of animals that feed off of dead things.
The buzzards disappeared from my neighborhood in February as suddenly as they had arrived. As much as I have read about them, the precise cause of their departure is unknown to me. A friend observed that their appearance immediately preceded the arrival of COVID-19 in America as if to suggest that the birds were some kind of prophetic omen. I scoffed. I am not a superstitious person, and I would not be unsettled if they decided to return. I enjoy watching them fly.