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Brilliant Buzzards

The Story Unfolds


Long-time readers of this column may remember my accounts of our association with a community of black vultures. I first introduced our avian friends in 2012 when what I assumed to be a juvenile bird started visiting our back porch to clean up the food I put out for the stray cats that then frequented our neighborhood.

The first vulture showed up in late summer/early fall of 2012, when, I believe, he or she was just striking out alone. I was sure there was a chorus of “Tsk-tsk, what is this younger generation coming to?” from the older birds in the flock when the juvenile decided that eating cat food from a bowl was preferable to endless soaring looking for roadkill, but it never faltered in its resolve.

It soon found a friend and they disappeared for a short time before returning in December, too early from their winter roosting area. Sadly, that too-warm December was followed by a harsh, snowy January that provided no food for the scavenging birds. But, bold and adaptable, they were more than willing to take advantage of our ready food supply.

They dined well all winter long, eating from separate ceramic bowls—vultures do not like to dine a deux—and toasted their toes over the flues of our neighbor’s chimney each frigid winter morning. I was amused and amazed at how quickly they solved the problem of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, providing both food and warmth for themselves against the brutal weather.

In recent years we have seen even more signs of their intelligence. After a soaking winter rain, one shivering bird flew to the ground and stood in front of our dryer vent with wings extended to warm up and dry out. The species is now ranked among the most intelligent of birds, along with parrots and crows.

Were those early birds the ones we now call “Ma and Pa Kettle”? That’s impossible to know. There has been a plethora of black vultures who have taken advantage of our largesse over the past 12 years but consistently there have been two birds, identifiable because they are clearly mated and because one of them has lost the nails on three toes.

Ma and Pa stop by regularly, perching on the brick wall outside our window and peering piercingly at us to beg for breakfast. If we do not respond rapidly enough they tap on the window or, if it is open, “bark” commands at us. Vultures, in addition to being homely, do not have the ability to sing. The best they can do is to make “woofing” or hissing sounds. “Woofing” is communication; hissing is hostile.

We have the impression that an invitation to come inside for a visit would not be rejected out of hand (or talon, as the case may be) by these two. When we carry out our offerings, they jump off the porch and hop toward us with the comical gait captured so perfectly in Disney movies.

Gregarious vultures maintain close social ties with their extended families throughout their lives and scientists now say they recognize and even demonstrate affection for humans they trust. Ours, who not only recognize us but also our cars, demonstrate trust by allowing us within inches of them.

In the early days, my son cautioned that we soon would have more buzzards than we could feed because, like crows, they are generous birds who share information about where to find food. That prophecy seemed to come true one alarming morning when I looked out to see 14 buzzards in my yard. “Our” vultures were there, placidly waiting for breakfast, but they were being bedeviled by the newcomers, a gang that, if they were human teens, would have been considered “gangstas.”

Whereas “our” buzzards have smoothly bald heads, the newcomers had “hip” hairdos of roached feathers. If they had been clothed, I am sure their jeans would have been down around their tail feathers, and they would have been bedecked with silver chains and tattoos.

They were a rowdy lot, jostling each other and making feints at our more sedate birds. I was dismayed—I could not afford to feed out 14 cans of cat food a day and I did not like this crew very much, so no breakfast was served that morning.

Since then I have learned that juvenile birds, unaccompanied by adults, can be vandals. With their demands unsatisfied, they do outrageous things to express their displeasure, like picking at rubber seals on cars or pulling covers off outdoor grills. They must be forcefully discouraged and driven away. On the other hand, if they are just “hanging out,” they may play with a ball abandoned by human children in a comical version of soccer.

At first, we were not sure how experienced our Ma and Pa were in the art of raising a family. They disappeared sporadically. We weren’t quite sure whether the lure of wild food was taking them away or whether they were sitting on an egg. One errant egg showed up in our yard, and we thought perhaps the honeymoon wasn’t quite over and they were practicing birth control.

If they had no chick, where were they? If they came, why that day? In my imagination, I conjured up their morning conversation. “Oh, I don’t feel like hunting this morning. Let’s eat out,” one would say to the other before flapping off in the direction of our house.

One day, we got our answer. Suddenly there were three birds perching on the neighbor’s roof—two nervous parents and one baby, who was even homelier than its mother and father. It was still fledged but with tufts of baby feathers sticking out here and there. My husband said it looked like it was still in its pajamas. After some nervous dithering, the parents led it down for its first dinner of cat food.

The younger bird, still used to being taken care of, was demanding. With plentiful food in front of it, it would stop every few seconds and insist on being fed regurgitated food. It was a pattern we saw again and again over the years. This past fall, I saw the first bona fide “tantrum” I have observed in the animal world. An adolescent accompanied Ma and Pa to the yard and, when they refused to feed it, it scrunched down and hopped along on its elbows, beating its wings against the ground and barking at its parents—who nonchalantly ignored it.

I also noticed another recent change. Ma and Pa are now at least 13 years old. They may live for 20 years, especially as they have a predictable source of food in the winter. But, alas, age takes its toll. From March until early summer they are busy with their brood, but now they are taking time for themselves. For the last two years, at the end of June or in early July, they have come to celebrate their empty nest. They land in our yard, dine, but then, instead of flying away, they seek a sunny patch.

There they settle down close to each other, for all the world like a romantic couple on a beach. Sometimes they lie so close their wings touch, frequently they gently preen their partner’s neck. They remain for hours, simply absorbing the peace of the moment, the contentment of their lifetime commitment to each other and the successful completion of raising another generation.

Vultures—admirable birds who are monogamous, family oriented, generous, intelligent and often humorous—are despised by many because, as nature’s “cleanup crew,” they consume dead creatures that could spread disease. Our antipathy is undeserved. We should celebrate these contributors to our common health, look beyond their wrinkled pates and curving beaks, stop projecting our fears on them, and see them for who they really are.

And maybe, just maybe, we should extend that same courtesy to our fellow human beings, looking below the “despised surface,” and taking time to understand and appreciate. Animal or human, Muslim or Christian, black or white—are we really all that different?