Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 501-A   October 6, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Here in Cook County, nowadays, we seldom see a buzzard. Even if we do, it may be mistaken for an eagle or a hawk. Buzzards are more common in central Illinois and Indiana. They are abundant farther south. Our neighborhood has become too citified for them; too few dead animals are left to rot.

The Turkey Vulture or Turkey Buzzard is a paradox in the bird world. On the ground it is an uncouth awkward object, repulsive in appearance and habits but, once in the air after a few powerful naps, it becomes a graceful creature to be admired. With no perceptible motions of wide spread pinions, the buzzard takes advantage of invisible currents which carry it up, as if by magic in every-widening spirals until sometimes it becomes a mere speck in the sky. Designers and pilots of gliders have learned much by studying this bird's masterful navigation of the air.

The turkey vulture's body, clothed by dull black feathers edged with brown, is from 26 to 30 inches in length and the long broad wings have a spread of about 6 feet. Its small head and short neck are naked, with a wrinkled leathery skin that is bright red. In the hooked heavy bill are large nostrils. Its aspect is evil, obscene and revolting. Like all vultures, it feeds almost entirely on carcasses of dead animals, no matter how putrid, rarely attacking a live one unless newly born or nearly dead. Its feet are not adapted for seizing prey: they are relatively smaller and weaker than those of a hawk or an eagle; the talons are shorter and more blunt.

As he patrols the sky in overlapping circles, a buzzard's marvelous telescopic vision enables him to detect any carrion. Then he sweeps down to it and that alerts others which soon come to join in the feast. They are not guided by smell, as was formerly supposed. They often gorge until scarcely able to walk and unable to fly without spewing some of their filthy cargo. They feed their young with that and they defend themselves with foul streams of it when attacked. Except for low grunts and, when angry, long hisses, the turkey vulture is voiceless. They build no nest, merely laying two eggs on the ground among rocks or logs in woodlands, in decayed stumps, in large hollow logs, or sometimes in caves.

This species ranges over most of North America from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada, but is scarce in the more northern regions. When soaring it can be distinguished from an eagle by its smaller head -- always peering downward -- shorter neck, the narrow rounded tail, and by the upward tilt of its wings. An eagle's wings are outstretched in almost a straight line.

The Black Vulture or Black Buzzard, commonly called "Carrion Crow" down south, is smaller than the turkey vulture. The skin on its naked head is black and its black plumage is glossy. In flight, it shows a short square tail and a white spot on the underside of each wing, near the ends. It is a bird of our southern states, most numerous near the coasts, where they scavenge along highways and even near cities.

Of nine species in North, Central and South America, the California Condor -- nearly extinct -- is the only other vulture in the United States. With wingspreads of as much as 12 feet, this species and the Andean Condor and the Lammergeir or Bearded Vulture of Europe, Africa and Asia are the largest of all birds of prey.

"Buzzard" was the pioneer's nickname for a native of Georgia.

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