Posts Tagged ‘Buzzards’

Monitoring the Birds of “The Oregon Trail” (One)

April 2, 2010

Frances Parkman

A copy of The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman arrived at our house recently. Parkman wrote it during and after a trip he took over part of the trail in 1846, a time when the Great Plains of the tall grasses reminded viewers of a great land ocean.

[W]e pursued our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods. Till at length, issuing forth into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of that great forest, that once spread unbroken from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an intervening belt of shrubbery, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of prairie, stretching swell over swell to the horizon.

Tall grass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America. Only about 4% remains, the two largest preserves being the 39,000 acre Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in Oklahoma and the 11,000 acres of the Flint Hills of Kansas where the National Park Service operates the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve. The rest was plowed under. But even today, in this age of splintered, tiny habitats, more than 150 species of birds can be found on the tiny remnants of a once great prairie. Imagine how many there must have been in 1846!

Parkman traveled the Trail from April to September of that year and we thought we would ride along with him, this summer of 2010, one hundred sixty-four years later, to see what he noticed about the bird life of those tall grass prairies which are now long gone.

Early in the journey, after failing to convince a Delaware Indian woman to part with one of the turkeys she was feeding at the front door of her little log house, Parkman takes his rifle and looks for something fresh for dinner.

A multitude of quails were plaintively whistling in the woods and meadows, but nothing appropriate to the rifle was to be seen, except three buzzards, seated on the spectral limbs of an old dead sycamore, that thrust itself out over the river from the dense sunny wall of fresh foliage. Their ugly heads were drawn down between their shoulders, and they seemed to luxuriate in the soft sunshine that was pouring from the west. . .As it grew dark, and the voices of the whippoorwills succeeded the whistle of the quails, we removed our saddles to the  tent to serve as pillows, spread our blankets upon the ground, and prepared to bivouac for the first time that season.

We’ll travel along with him and report to you his comments about the birds and other wildlife he meets. So far, along with the quail, the buzzards, and the whippoorwills, all he has described are “varmints” into which category he has already dumped wolves, frogs, snakes, and “musquitoes.”


The photo of the Oklahoma tallgrass refuge, operated by the Nature Conservancy was generously put in the public domain by “Dbinfo.”

The Eaters of Death

September 22, 2008

It is a fine thing to lie on your belly and watch Turkey Vultures soaring far beneath you.  1400 feet below me a plateau falls away into the canyons of the Colorado and the Green Rivers.  I am lying on hot sandstone and watching two vultures, a/k/a buzzards.  I had to lie down.  Otherwise vertigo might have sent me tumbling over the edge of the precipice and I lack wings. And I do not wish to feed those vultures.  Yet.  Someday perhaps, but not now.

I have come back to this cliff late in the day, hoping to watch the sunset alone.  But it is not to be.  A small group of people is already gathering for the evening talk by the astronomy ranger at Canyonlands National Park.  I had been here earlier in the day when the place was infested with bus loads of what Edward Abbey called “industrial tourists” meaning that they come to places like this only because of the paved roads and the internal combustion engine.  Finding solitude in our national parks can be a challenge, especially on top of the “Islands in the Sky” district of Canyonlands.  We are funneled to the best viewpoints and restricted to a single developed campground.  Tomorrow my backpacking buddy and I will escape them but, for tonight, here we are.

The Turkey Vultures don’t care. I suspect the only thing finer than to be lying on my belly — out of sight of the tourists and Gordon, the astronomy ranger — on hot sandstone watching them soar, is to be one.

For hours they ride the thermals.  For hours they soar without so much as twitching a wing.  Perfectly designed for flight, they fly perfectly.  Soon the afternoon thermals on which they soar will die and they will return to earth for another night. There are two of them and they probably roost somewhere in the cliff below me.

They are the eaters of death.  Where ever death on the desert happens, they arrive to help clean it.  They are perfectly evolved for that as well.  Featherless heads and necks have evolved to enable them to dive into carrion without trapping all that bacteria in their feathers. So acute is their sense of smell that they can smell death from thousands of feet above it.  Their olfactory organ is larger than that of Andean and Californian Condors. Even certain mushrooms attract them because of their odor.  They leave the scent glands of skunks alone when they feast on a dead skunk. Apparently that smell is worse than death.

The same backpacking friend and I once came upon one in the middle of a narrow desert road.  It refused to move for the auto bearing down on it.  It was pulling what we first took to be a long stick across the road.  That was a puzzler.  Why would a buzzard be interested in a stick?  As we got closer we realized it was a dead snake.  No way was that bird going to allow that metal contraption to deprive it of its dinner.  We stopped the car and waited.

We humans, aware of the long term consequences of death and worried about it, often think of vultures as ugly.  This is a defect in our perception.  Perfection, in all its forms, is beautiful and so are they.

If you don’t believe me, spend an hour or so watching one soar.

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