Hinckley’s Buzzards Are Just Around The Corner

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They might not be the most beautiful of birds and their dining choices would cause most of us to blanch, but in Northeast Ohio many people look forward to the return of the buzzards.

March 15 is the day that the buzzards, which are actually turkey vultures, are expected in Hinckley Township. Bird watchers flock to the area in the northeast corner of Medina County to witness this event, which for many is the sign that spring is near, and join in a day of activities celebrating their return.  

Legend has it that the turkey vultures were drawn to area after what became known as “The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818.”  Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Chief Wildlife Officer and Museum Ambassador Harvey Webster said while the hunt definitely took place, it probably isn’t the reason that they birds return to Hinckley each year.

“It was around Christmastime.  All of the able-bodied men and boys formed this giant circle.  At the appointed hour, they closed ranks on the circle and started driving all the wild game before them until they had them all trapped. They shot and killed dozens of wolves, bears and deer and all these animals that were so common in the forests and habitats of northeastern Ohio. Supposedly, the story goes they harvested the meat they wanted for human consumption and left the carcasses to rot. This is what attracted the famous buzzards, or turkey vultures, to Hinckley.  That said, we actually have roosts of vultures all over Northeast Ohio, in places where we didn’t have circle hunts, but it is a great story and we’re sticking to it,” Webster said.

While the birds have returned each year, people didn’t begin gathering to watch them until much later. 

“It was back in the 1950s that one of the rangers from in the Cleveland Metroparks Hinckley Reservation had noted that every March 15, he would see the vanguard of the local roost or flock of vultures returning to the hills of Hinckley.  He mentioned it to a columnist at the Cleveland Press. Over a couple of years, this got written about and people became more and more interested in seeing if it was actually true. You would have folks watching for the return of the Hinckley buzzards.  That of course was a wonderful opportunity for the folks in Hinckley to create a celebration and have a pancake breakfast and community events.  Over the years, there have been times when thousands of people have turned out,” Webster said.

Webster said the turkey vultures owe a debt of gratitude to the people of Hinckley.

“This is a culture phenomenon. We celebrate the good folks in Hinckley, because if there ever was a bird that needed a day of public relations, it’s the turkey vulture, given his lifestyle

That lifestyle includes a menu that would probably kill a human, but Webster said the turkey vulture’s dining habits play an important role in the environment.

"Their scientific name is ‘cathartes aura,’ so you can think of them as cathartic, cleansing the environment of dead and decaying flesh.  With their six foot wing span, they have a magnificent ability to soar effortlessly, although a little bit wobbly above the ground. They use that vantage point to see or smell dead animals on the ground. By removing all that [dead] material, they are literally cleaning up.  They are removing things from places that would have been breeding grounds for bacteria or removing food from animals that might be participating in disease,” Webster said.

One of the bird’s most prominent characteristics is paramount to the animal’s work.

“They have a featherless head, which a lot people don’t find too endearing. However that featherless head, when they descend on a dead animal, allows them to stick their head into the animal’s carcass and dine with impunity.  They don’t have to worry about trapping particles of flesh on their face,” Webster said.

The turkey vulture’s featherless head isn’t the only thing that allows the bird to eat decaying flesh without becoming ill.

“They have this cool bony shield over their nostrils.  We call them ‘perforate nostrils,’ because from the side view it looks like you can look right through their nostrils, which indeed you can.  This serves as a bony shield which prevents anything from getting up their nose. They also have this stomach with so much acid and is laden with so much nasty bacteria that would make you or me deathly ill, which aids in the decomposition of what they are consuming.  They can eat animals that have died from anthrax or were contaminated with botulism.  They have a wonderful suite of adaptations which allow them to be incredibly successful in this lifestyle,” Webster said.

Click here to find out what's happening in Hinckley as they celebrate their 62nd Annual Buzzard Day.

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