Walking over the brow of a hill in my pasture, I came upon the most ghastly, heart-stopping sight I’ve ever seen on the farm, or anywhere else for that matter. Perched on six fence posts in a row were six turkey vultures, alias Cathartis aura, or what we call buzzards. What made the scene so awesome was that when the big birds saw me, they raised their wings above their heads, as if preparing to launch into the air, but then just remained motionless. Each set of those wings spans some six feet from tip to tip, making the birds look bigger than eagles, bigger than condors, bigger to my startled eyes than Boeing 707s. Think of the mythical Thunderbird of American Indian folklore. Now think of six of them in a row at eye level, transfixing you with beady stares from stony eyes set in flaming red heads, surrounded by black feathers of doom. Adding to the ghoulish scene were more buzzards on the ground, tearing into the innards of a dead sheep, dragging its intestines out over the grass, quarreling with each other, all of them intent on gobbling down more sheep innards than the others. I was remembering how my father warned me as a child to stay way from buzzards. “To protect its young, a buzzard will puke on you,” he said. “Smells worse than skunk spray.” As I backed off, thinking of getting a camera, the raised wings flapped, the feet pushed off, and the icons of doomsday took to the air and silently drifted away.
Buzzards are birds of contrast. Soaring in the air, their earthy clumsy ugliness is transformed into majestic grace. They know how to ride the thermal air currents and glide effortlessly for hours high in the sky. Watching them with binoculars is more exciting than watching skydivers or meteor showers.
There is something more mystifying about buzzards to me than the sight of them. They are almost as ubiquitous as robins, with a range from the southern tip of South America to far up in Canada. Even though they are awesome to behold, humans for the most part give them scant attention. Buzzards are beneficial on the farm, cleaning up dead animals almost before the carcasses can rot and stink up the pasture fields. (On my farm, they get to eat a lot of dead raccoons.) Although quite vulnerable to human depredation, especially when they linger along the highways, cleaning up roadkill, risking becoming roadkill themselves, they are actually growing in number in most areas.
I have a theory about why we pretend not to see buzzards up in the sky, watching us. They remind us that our days are numbered. On the other hand, artists, always uncommonly aware of the nearness of death, are often fascinated with buzzards. Painter Karl Kuerner is one of them. He took the buzzard photo accompanying this essay, showing a situation I would not otherwise believe. Behind the picture is a long story that punctures the idea that buzzards are images of death. This one showed up on the Kuerners’ roof one morning. It had a band on its leg so they figured it must be an escape from some kind of bird sanctuary. They put out raw meat for it and it came right down and ate it. They made a pet of it and named it Buzz. It liked to perch on the deck railing next to Louise and run its beak through her hair, as if preening. Louise (who has since passed away) could eventually feed it right out of her hand, as the photo shows. Karl painted his well-known “A Buzzard In Her Lap” showing “Buzz” sitting comfortably in Louise’s lap.
Karl lives on the farm where he grew up near Chadds Ford, Pa. and has been fascinated with buzzards since boyhood. He likes to recall the time he put some spoiled meat out in the pasture outside his studio. “The buzzards came tumbling out of the sky and were all over that meat,” he says. “Looked just like a bunch of football players trying to recover a fumble.”
Buzzards are symbols of the basic truth about agriculture. Farming is full of exuberant life but death is always near at hand. One way or another, figuratively or literally, we all end up feeding the buzzards.