Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Buzzard's Return

It’s a joke that garners a wild west guffaw: you’re sitting with friends taking a break and along glides a buzzard aka Turkey Vulture. Her featherless head points down as her slow, tippy flight circles ‘round, casting a shadow across dirt and rock. Better get movingshow signs of life! laughs the group.

Mercifully, we’re not the target of their fly-bys. Their chicken-like feet aren’t designed to carry food. Their preference is soft rotted skin that’s easy to tear with sharp talons and eat immediately. Evolution has equipped them well: they have the largest olfactory system of all birds and can smell death over a mile away.

Small perch not a problem!
It’s March. Arivaca’s dozens of migrating, red-leathery-headed vultures have arrived from south of the border, perhaps from as far away as South America. Whether you call them committees, venues or volts (all correct), they soar in on blue-sky days, eschewing clouds and rain for warm sunny thermals. They land in various tall trees and snags around town, and roost in the rocks that surround Arivaca Lake. Further afield, their migration flocks can number thousands. Their routes are overland, avoiding large bodies of water in favor of land-birthed thermals to aid their five to six-foot wingspans. Their wing flaps are few and far between, lending to the mesmerizing quality of their flight. While their day time foraging is solitary, they gather in groups to feed on carrion, eating one at a time.  A group of feeding vultures is called (are you ready for this?) a wake.

I’ve camped for weeks under an old growth mesquite TV roost and it’s a sight to behold. Silence pervades their lives. No songs, no calls, only soft hissing or an occasional cluck. The rush of their dark brown wings is magic. Even their roosting arguments are silent, as those already positioned for the evening are displaced by late-comers. The jockeying for position on tiny branches amazes. A full-grown vulture with a 67’’ wingspan, 26” long, weighs only three to four pounds.

The Turkey Vultures passing through Arivaca will roost, replenish and show off that wingspan in early morning stretches from tree tops, cliff edges and power poles. When they nest further north, they lay eggs on ledge recesses, in caves, hollow logs or even on the ground. They take over abandoned nests but do not build their own. They are monogamous and return to their nest site yearly. Nest sites from which you want to keep your distance. When adults or chicks feel threatened, they will vomit in your direction.

Barring projectile vomits, Turkey Vultures and I share commonalities. We prefer seclusion and silence. We are drawn to tree snags … them to roost, me to photograph. We fancy juniper berries and grapes, theirs on the vine, mine in a bottle of gin or wine. We even have similar migration routes. I’ve pondered if the TVs catching thermals at the top of Devils Tower WY, my recent park ranger locale, were Arivaca familiars. While I’m not one for rot and never owned a roadkill cookbook, I like to think, in a nod to Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we agree that roadside guard rails should go away.  

Turkey Vultures are named after wild turkeys, who also have a red, featherless head. They are related more closely to storks than hawks or eagles. Perhaps we need a version of a buzzard delivering a baby to desert-dwelling parents? Okay, maybe not, but Arivaca’s harbinger of spring begs for acknowledgement. A shindig. A parade. While Hummers and Meadowlarks are resplendent, nothing jerks our chain like a buzzard’s morning statuesque wingspread facing the sun; or their circling hundreds kettling up and up to catch thermals as they go about their daily mop-up of roadkill and desert death. They fill our sky with silent grace and continue on, leaving us to ponder empty skies.
Worthy of a toast, I say.


  1. Wonderful! Then the TVs arrive in our Valley we know that Spring has also finally arrived. Many will spend the Summer with us and keep the place cleaned up a bit.

    1. They are my favorite harbinger. Thanks for writing.

  2. Yes. Same here. Some stay, some continue north. They save highway departments mucho bucks in clean-ups!