March 2006 Issue
The turkey vulture's bad habits and homely features match its unflattering nickname: "nature's garbage disposal." The town of Hinckley's holds an annual Buzzard day to celebrate this unlikely object of affection.
There comes a point when some poor thing seems so down trodden - as if the fates conspired at its birth to make life unfair - that you just have to root for its success. Take, for example, the turkey vulture. If there exists a caste system in the world of birds, this one is surely on the bottom rung.
It's not enough that the buzzard was born a scavenger, consigned to feed mostly on dead animals. (You can practically see the scorn: the buzzard happily nibbling on roadkill on the side of some dusty byway, while a flock of more finicky birds perch in treetops nearby, shaking their beaks in disgust.) There are also those features. From enormous nostrils and a bald, wrinkly head to a face so crimson it could have been dipped in scalding water, who knows what you had to have done in a past life to wind up so cursed.
Thank goodness the town of Hinckley is around to boost the bird's self-esteem.
This month, the northeastern Ohio community of nearly 7,000 offers nothing short of a love fest for turkey vultures, who begin arriving like clockwork on March 15 every year from their winters south, drawn partly to the ideal nesting grounds of Hinckley Reservation's steep cliffs. Never mind the bird's unfortunate face or that it opts for hisses and grunts over beautiful warbles. It boasts celebrity status here, greeted with a tribute band, lectures, a breakfast in its honor, even merchandising (it takes a special sort of reverence to buy a plush buzzard meant to cover the head of your golf club). Think of the turkey vultures as Ohio's less attractive version of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, beloved not only for their prompt and faithful homecoming, but also as the harbingers of a new season.
"I like to say that when the buzzards come, they bring spring with them," says Bob Hinkle, chief of outdoor education for the Cleveland Metroparks. "Basically, when winter finally begins to lose its grip, you know it's about time for the buzzards to come back."
While Hinkle's 24-year-long role as Metroparks educator is well respected, it's not quite as impressive to locals and birdwatchers as the one of "official buzzard spotter" that he's held for the past eight.
This Buzzard Day, the same as every ides of March, he'll crawl out of bed before dawn, pack up his spotting scope and a pair of binoculars, and head for the reservation's open field and nearby visitor area known as Buzzard Roost. Hinkle will train his expert eyes skyward and search for as long as it takes, as a growing crowd of Buzzard Day diehards, curious out-of-towners, birding enthusiasts, and eager members of the media gather around him, waiting for the word.
There's no doubt they'll come (both the migrating turkey vultures and the mass of onlookers, that is) - it's just a matter of when. One year, the first trickle of birds flew into Hinckley at 7:30 a.m.; another, they lollygagged until nearly suppertime. Hinkle, although aware that they usually enter the field's view from the southwest, carefully scans in all directions. Occasionally they've appeared from behind the crowd in the direction of 90-acre Hinckley Lake, soaring above the spruce trees. "Oftentimes, they'll come right down over where we're standing, so we get some pretty good looks at them," says Hinkle.
"Buzzard!" Hinkle shouts at the sight of the season's first returning turkey vulture, giving the bird a hearty greeting and confirming its identity to the applauding crowd. The buzzard, accustomed to watching more lovely birds with less disgusting diets garner all the attention, is no doubt appreciative of the turnout. Still, you can't help but think it'd rather be welcomed the way its ancestors were one season 188 years ago - an event that, legend has it, still lurks in the collective memory of turkey vultures everywhere, and provides ample reason to keep them coming back.
"A lot of people study the natural history of the turkey vulture, but not as many know about its historical association with Hinckley," says Foster Brown, a historical interpreter for the Cleveland Metroparks. Visitors to Buzzard Sunday - the event, always held the Sunday after Buzzard Day, in which guests converge on Buzzard Roost for everything from naturalist-led hikes and Hinckley bus tours, to live music and storytelling - usually see Brown beneath a tent as half of the Buzzard Boys: a band that helps set the event's entertaining and educational tone with history-themed tunes. This year, though, Foster and his band mate, Ed Eakin, will also take to the area's open field, carrying muskets and clad in period costumes for a skit about The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818.
On Christmas Eve of that year, settlers in surrounding towns enacted a massive hunt to deal with the many wild animals in heavily wooded Hinckley, which were killing off farmers' livestock at an alarming rate. Hundreds of men and boys surrounded the township and, making loud noises, lured bears, wolves, foxes and deer into designated areas, then killed them.
"They had a jamboree, and all the meat was distributed for people to take home to their families for food," says Susan Batke, curator of the Hinckley Historical Society. "[But] there were plenty of carcasses left lying there that winter. When spring came and all that snow and ice melted, the buzzards returning for the season had an absolute smorgasbord."
Batke is quick to note that while the tale is true, turkey vultures have always had a reason to come back to the area. The reservation's steep ledges provide a perfect nesting area for the buzzards, who lay their eggs on the ground, and who can count on them being safe from predators.
Still, the legend adds to the unique appeal of the buzzards. "They're kind of ugly ... and they don't smell real good," says Hinkle. "[But] we love them here. It's kind of a fun way to celebrate spring."
The annual return of the buzzards (Buzzard Day) is March 15 at Buzzard Roost, located at the corner of State Road and West Drive in Hinckley Reservation in Hinckley Township. The search begins at 6:30 a.m.
Buzzard Sunday is March 19 (always the first Sunday after March 15), also at Buzzard Roost, 8:30 a.m.â€“2:30 p.m. Events include historical bus tours of Hinckley, live music, naturalist-led hikes, an official buzzard scoreboard and a sale of buzzard-themed items at the EarthWords nature shop. That day's annual pancake breakfast will be held 7 a.m.â€“2 p.m. at Hinckley Elementary School, 1586 Center Rd.
For more information, call 216/635-3200, or visit www.hinckleytwp.org.