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Turkey Vultures Birds of Honor In Hinckley, Ohio

Dear Bird Folks,

My Dad grew up in Hinckley, Ohio and I remember him telling me about “Buzzard Day.” This is the day when the buzzards returned to Hinckley from their wintering grounds. The entire town celebrated the buzzards’ return by having a daylong festival. Is this true? The reason I’m asking is because none of my books have any buzzards listed. Is there another name for these birds or have they all disappeared?

– Margaret, Weymouth, MA


Good for Hinckley, Margaret,

I’m happy to hear that the folks in Hinckley have a bird holiday that competes with the swallows in Capistrano. I have nothing against swallows, but I’m a little tired of them hogging all the returning-birds headlines. How many times do we have to read about the swallows coming back to the old Mission for Capistrano? Especially since swallows haven’t nested in Capistrano in years. That’s right. Swallows don’t return anymore and no one is sure why. Some believe it has to do with changes in the swallows’ population; while others think the birds have simply rethought their religious commitment and no longer want to be associated with the Mission. Buzzards, on the other hand, love Hinckley and the Hinckleyites love them. In fact, they love buzzards so much they have an annual daylong celebration in their honor.

The history of buzzards in Hinckley dates back to the early 1800s when flocks of these birds descended on the town to feed off of the refuse and animal scraps left over from something called “the Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818.” Other historians argue that the birds were actually first seen in Hinckley a few years earlier as they were soared over the local gallows. (Gallows?) I don’t know which of these warm, cuddly stories is the most correct but either one is the perfect excuse for a town-wide celebration. Actually, the celebration didn’t start until many years later when a reporter from the Cleveland Press wrote a story stating that the buzzards had returned to Hinckley on the same day (March 15th) for the past twenty-nine years in a row. The story brought over 9,000 naturalists, ornithologists and other oddballs to the town on March 15, 1957. The visitors watched and waited, but no birds were seen. Then, at 2:00 PM, just as everyone was getting ready to drag the reporter off to the gallows, the sky filled with buzzards and the party was on. In 1957 Hinckley was not ready for such an influx of people but since then they have been better prepared. Today they greet visitors with some swell events that include a craft fair, a pancake breakfast and a carrion eating contest. (Actually, I’m not 100 % sure about the last event, but if they don’t have a carrion eating contest they totally should.)

Now that I have that out of the way, Margaret, I can explain why buzzards aren’t in your bird book. Buzzards are a colloquial name for your basic Turkey Vulture. Turkey Vultures are the birds that have been returning to Hinckley every March 15th for the past zillion years in a row. I don’t know why some areas of America refer to vultures as buzzards, but it probably started with prospectors. I can just picture some old, grubby, half-shaven prospector shaking his pickaxe at a flock of birds, yelling: “Get away from here, you gosh-dang buzzards.” (If you can’t picture that you clearly haven’t watched enough Bonanza.) Visiting Europeans are even more confused. When they hear someone say “buzzards,” they think of hawks and not vultures. Buzzard is their generic word for a large hawk. One chap from across the Pond told me that he had just seen his first “Red-tailed Buzzard.” Because I’m always well mannered I politely corrected him and didn’t laugh until he had walked away. I’m good like that.

I love that the folks in Ohio welcome the returning Turkey Vultures to their town. Not only does it give those less-than-appreciated vultures some deserved respect, but also it gives the town a needed economic boost. Each year thousands of visitors arrive from all over the world to participate in Buzzard Day. The officials in my hometown of Orleans, MA could learn a lot from the citizens of Hinckley. We have birds that annually return to our town, too, only we complain about them. Every spring returning Piping Plovers are greeted with grumbling and whining because their nests curtail the use of certain parts of the beach and some of the locals don’t like that. Babies!

I understand why the ORV people are upset, but what is wrong with the rest of us? Why aren’t we promoting this cute bird? Where are the plover hats, mugs, postcards, T-shirts and plover-shaped cookies? Where are the plover tours? Where’s the giant plover in the center of town with a sign that says, “Welcome to Orleans, Plover Capital of the World”? Talk about a great photo-op for tourists. (It certainly would be more attractive than that hideous “Beach Open” sign that blinks on the side of Rt. 6.) Plovers are wonderful birds and they need to be respected, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a little cash at the same time. If Hinckley can do it with buzzards and Capistrano can do it without swallows, Orleans should be able to do it with plover$…I mean, plovers.